Ecomodernism: creating more questions than it answers

ecomodernistBy Katy Wilson

In April 2015 ahead of the 45th Earth Day, a group of 18 authors, including the founders of the Breakthrough Institute, released An Ecomodernist Manifesto, a report outlining how to “use humanity’s extraordinary powers in service of creating a good Anthropocene”. Released on the 26th September in the UK, the publication outlines the authors’ beliefs that human well-being must be decoupled from environmental destruction and that alongside reducing our impact on the environment we must refrain from trying to balance nature with development if we are to “avoid economic and ecological collapse” and “make more room for nature”. This decoupling is to be achieved through several ways such as intensification, demographic change and through the use of technological substitutes.

Intensification of agriculture, energy extraction, forestry and human settlement is believed to be key to separating the natural world from ongoing human development and to enhancing nature, alleviating poverty and mitigating climate change. Authors use as evidence of this effect the fact that since the mid-1960s the amount of land needed for growing crops and animal feed for the average person has decreased by about half. Net reforestation has also been made possible in some areas such as New England due to agricultural intensification and a reduction in the use of wood as fuel.

Technology has, over history, reduced our reliance on natural ecosystems (or at least their directly obtained goods) and increased our resource-use efficiency but it has also allowed the human population, and associated consumption, to expand exponentially as well as increase the reach of society’s impact on global ecosystems. Although our consumption patterns are changing (in developing countries diets are shifting to include more meat and processed foods, while in some developed countries more sustainable protein sources are growing in popularity) and human population is predicted to peak and decline this century, globalisation and the distance between societies and the resources they consume, continues to increase. The development of technological substitutes could lower the impact our lifestyles have on ecosystems far away. Technological development supported by the report include urbanisation, nuclear power, agricultural intensification, aquaculture and desalination. On the other hand suburbanisation, low-yield farming and some forms of renewable energy production are believed to increase human demands on the environment. [Read more…]

Sustainable Food Systems

ID-100143900Food demand is expected to rise by 70% to 2050. Urbanisation and increasing incomes per capita are shifting diets to those more demanding of meat and other animal products, which has serious implications for the use of natural resources to produce food. Today around 1 in 8 people are malnourished and 870 million people chronically hungry, indicating our current food systems cannot meet present demand let alone future. Modifying the world’s food production systems to produce more food and perhaps distribute it more evenly, is made harder by a growing recognition of the negative impacts agriculture can have on the environment. Conversion of land to agriculture is the biggest threat to biodiversity. Agriculture places large demands on scarce natural resources, the overuse of which not only threatens the wider global environment and human wellbeing, but the very processes agriculture relies on e.g. pest control, pollination and rainfall.

A new report by the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy, entitled Sustainable Food: A Recipe for Food Security and Environmental Protection, lays out the changes we need to make to our entire food system and the urgency with which we need to make them.

The report begins with a summary of the pressures on food production and the drivers of food demand namely: population growth; natural resource scarcity including land, biodiversity, water, climate change, and biofuels; changing dietary patterns and; rising food prices.

The report then turns to some of the solutions and pathways to making food systems more sustainable, advocating action around the following areas:

  • Minimising food waste
  • Rethinking land management and agricultural practices:
    • Using agroecological principles such as building soil organic matter, which the EU claim can reduce negative impacts and at the same time increase yields, although evidence of this potential win-win is scarce
    • Conservation agriculture and land sparing versus land sharing
    • Replenishing water supplies through, for example, no-till agriculture
    • Ensuring the long-term sustainability of fish stocks through expanding aquaculture
    • Reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change
    • Increasing the efficiency of agriculture through the application of science and technology
    • Understanding consumption patterns in a bid to contain the demand for the most resource-intensive types of food
    • Investing in smallholder farmers to help them increase their productivity and integration with global markets

Of course knowing that we need to undertake many of these actions is relatively easy. Understanding how to take action is hard and the report acknowledges that considerable policy and knowledge gaps exist, for example, what future per capita consumption levels will be, the benefits or impacts of different agricultural practices and ways of integrating multiple objectives in policy making. [Read more…]

Going vegetarian: the answer to the world’s problems?

Speaking at the First International Conference on Global Food Security held last month in the Netherlands, David Tilman, Regents Professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in Ecology at the University of Minnesota and professor at University of California, Santa Barbara‘s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, presented his views on how we can achieve global food security and environmental sustainability.

Food insecurity and unsustainable use of the environment are two of the greatest challenges we as a society face. And they are linked: how we tackle one problem will affect the other. Prof. Tilman laid out the main barriers we face to achieving food security and environmental sustainability:

1)      Increased demand driven by population and income growth

2)      Dietary shifts and health including under and over nutrition

3)      Environmental issues which include greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution, ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss.

Speaking to the second barrier in his list, Prof.Tilman explained that as income increases so does the demand for calories and animal protein. He pointed to the need for changes in dietary behaviour, without which it is unlikely we will address the world’s problems.

By 2050 global demand for crop protein will have increased by 110%, for crop calories by 100%. 30% of these increases will be a product of population growth, 70% from higher incomes, which are increasing most rapidly in poorer nations.

Changing our diets will not only address some of this growth in demand but it could also make us healthier. Recent evidence points to a 50 to 60% lower incidence of diabetes in lower meat diets. A pesco-vegetarian diet can add up to 10 years of life to a human adult, although there are multiple confounding factors that could bias this result. There is also a huge disparity in terms of access to meat, with half the global population having access to less animal protein than recommended under a low meat diet. So some people eat too much meat, some not enough.

Health benefits aside, a lower meat diet, for those with excessive meat consumption, also has environmental impacts in terms of agricultural production and how it expands. For example shifting towards greater production of fruits and vegetables, for which the whole world is underachieving in terms of eating the recommended amounts, less livestock and increased aquaculture.

Looking to the environmental sustainability challenge, Prof. Tilman explained that annual greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion equate to almost 9 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon equivalent, an amount that is hard to reduce given the world’s energy needs. If everybody drove a hybrid car, for example, this total amount would be reduced only by about one twentieth. At the moment it is hard to see how we will even reduce the rate at which emissions are growing each year. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture (not including fossil fuels which make up about 10% of agricultural emissions) are just under 4Gt of carbon equivalent per year, most of which comes from land clearing, livestock production and nitrogen fertilisation.  If diets continue to change and yields continue on their past growth trajectories, by 2050 agricultural emissions will have increased by an additional 4Gt per year. [Read more…]

Food systems for human consumption

ID-10034891Over the next 50 or so years the population is predicted to rise to over 9 billion, an addition of 2 billion people to the planet. Understandably this raises concerns as to how the resources of the planet, not least food, will stretch to meet the growing demand. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates food production will need to  increase 70 to 100%  by 2050. In a new paper entitled, Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare, authors Cassidy et al investigated how our current food production systems could be adapted to feed more people.

Increasingly crops grown are being used to feed livestock and as sources of fuel, uses that can divert food away from the human food chain. Some 36% of the calories produced from crops are used for animal feed of which 12% contributes to human diets, and 4% of human calories are used for biofuel production. The latter proportion has increased four-fold between 2000 and 2010 and looks set to rise further. The study asked the question, how many more people could be fed if crops were only grown for human consumption?

Through mapping the extent, productivity and end use of 41 major agricultural crops, which account for over 90% of total calorie production in the world, the authors were able to identify the gaps between human calorie requirements (taken as 2,700 calories per day) and crop production, now and in the future.

The paper reports significant inefficiencies in the food system. If the current crops being grown were used exclusively for human consumption, our food systems could feed an additional 4 billion people. As the authors state, however, changing the allocation of crops in terms of their end use is only one potential solution but one which when combined with efforts to increase crop yields and to reduce food waste could amount to a substantial solution to the world’s food needs.

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

The amazing, surprising, Africa-driven demographic future of the Earth, in 9 charts, The Washington Post

Driving Agricultural Innovations to Improve Nutrition, Feed the Future

GM crops: Public fears over ‘Frankenstein food’ may be easing, Independent poll reveals, The Independent

Costs of Arctic methane release could approach value of global economy – study, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Can We Trust Monsanto with Our Food?, Scientific American

Climate Forecasts Shown to Warn of Crop Failures, Science Daily

Better evidence, better programmes, better outcomes, IFAD

Zimbabwe: Smallholders Feed a Nation As Land Reform Fails, Africa Agriculture News, IPS

Partnerships bear fruit in drive for Africa to feed Africa, Thomson Reuters Foundation

How (and why) Africa should solve its own problems, The Christian Science Monitor

The era of cheap food is over. Are we ready for that?, The Telegraph

Commentary – Who feeds Africa? It is the woman, Global Food for Thought

The ‘invisible’ farmer and the global hunger debate, Aljazeera

How To Prevent Hunger In Upcoming Decades? Try Precision Agriculture, Huffington Post

Current increases in crop yields will not meet future food demand

ID-10062725 (2)Global food production must increase if we are to meet the rising demand for food, feed and fuel brought about by growing populations, incomes and western diets. It must increase in the face of severe natural resource constraints.  Current production growth, however, will not meet the world’s food needs, as a recent article by Ray et al, entitled Yield Trends Are Insufficient to Double Global Crop Production by 2050, attests.

To achieve food security we need to increase food production between 50 and 100% by 2050. Ray et al, however find that for four key global crops, maize, rice, wheat, and soybean, which currently produce nearly two-thirds of global agricultural calories, yield increases between 1961 and 2008 were only 1.6%, 1.0%, 0.9%, and 1.3% per year. To put this in perspective, a 2.4% per year rate of yield gains is needed to double crop production by 2050.

This high level analysis masks a lot of geographic variation. For example, maize yields are improving in Ethiopia, Angola, South Africa, and Madagascar but decreasing in such countries as Morocco, Chad, Somalia, Kenya and Zambia. There is a similar diversity in yield changes for soybean, wheat and rice.

One answer is to expand the amount of land we grow crops on (extensify), a solution that would be disastrous for the environment, for carbon emissions and for biodiversity, for which habitat loss is the biggest threat. The other is to intensify, increase the yields from existing agricultural land. Often intensification is associated with large-scale high-input commercial agriculture, also detrimental to the natural resource base. The UN estimates that 80% of the required increase in food production between 2015 and 2030 will have to come from intensification. Additionally strategies to reduce food loss and waste, change consumer eating preferences and ensure the food system is more equitable could also have a large impact.

In another recent article in Science, Garnett et al discuss a new paradigm that is gaining traction, one outlined by the Montpellier Panel in their 2013 Report, Sustainable Intensification: A New Paradigm for African Agriculture. Sustainable intensification (SI), which aims to reconcile food production and environmental protection, has been much discussed on this blog and is receiving increasing attention from decision makers. Garnett et al outline the four premises underlying SI: [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Food Security To Be At Centre Of Africa Development Agenda, World Food Programme

Vilsack Outlines Vision for Agricultural Solutions to Environmental Challenges, USDA

Nigeria, Brazil Partner On Food Production, Agricultural Technology Transfer, Ventures

Chart of the week: Africa’s growth / human development lag, Financial Times

Cutting Food Loss and Waste will Benefit People and the Environment, Says New Study on World Environment Day, UNEP

A Plea for Agricultural Innovation, Calestous Juma, Belfer Center

Bill Gates visits ICRISAT, ICRISAT

Population growth erodes sustainable energy gains – UN report, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Agricultural Productivity Will Rise to the Challenge, IEEE Spectrum

Chocolate Makers Fight for Farmers’ Loyalty, The Wall Street Journal

In Europe, Monsanto Backing Away From GMO Crops, The Huffington Post

Can market solutions unlock Africa’s agricultural potential?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

How We Can Eat Our Landscapes, Thinking Country

UN panel calls for end to extreme poverty by 2030 in roadmap for world’s top challenges, The Washington Post

Good news from the front lines of hunger, Ertharin Cousins

Commentary – Hay Festival 2013: Roger Thurow looks at the effects of famine, Global Food for Thought