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.

Agricultural science is the backbone of sustainable development, Thomson Reuters Foundation

New Generation of GM Crops Puts Agriculture in a ‘Crisis Situation’, Wired

Amped-up plants, Nature

Moral Hazard? ‘Mega’ public-private partnerships in African agriculture, Oxfam

The African Landscapes Action Plan, Landscapes for People, Food and Nature

Closing the Gap for Post-2015: New Ambition for Acute Malnutrition, Huffington Post

UN: only small farmers and agroecology can feed the world, The Ecologist

The Time Has Come for Agroecology, IPS

Is FAO opening a window for ecological farming?, Greenpeace

How to equip farmers for climate change, CNN

Climate-smart agriculture: balancing trade-offs in food systems and ecosystems, CCAFS

Commodities: Cereal excess, Financial Times [Read more…]

Boom and Bust: the future of our food producing ecosystems

ID-100219796A recent paper, No Dominion over Nature, authored by UK ecologists, Professors Mark Huxham, Sue Hartley, Jules Pretty and Paul Tett, describes how current approaches to food production are damaging the long term health of ecosystems, hampering their ability to provide ecosystem services and leaving them vulnerable to collapse. Focusing on continual (and unsustainable) increases in agricultural productivity, for example through intensive monocultures, will inevitably lead to a “boom and bust” cycle.

The “dominant narrative” in meeting the ever increasing demand for food (some estimate we need to increase food production by 100% by 2050 to meet this demand) is to intensify agricultural production, an approach, such as the Green Revolution, that has so far allowed food production to keep pace with population growth. Such a pathway, as authors argue, is causing ecosystem deterioration, eroding the ecosystem services we rely upon such as pollination, climate regulation and water purification. Intensification comes at an economic and ecological cost – ever increasing synthetic input amounts are costly, too costly for some, while they have serious impacts on the environment.

An alternative is low input agriculture such as organic farming, which may not produce the yields to meet future demand without expansion of farming area and similarly poses a threat to the environment with agricultural expansion being a major factor in the conversion of natural habitats, deforestation and biodiversity loss. In particular the report talks about the debate between those arguing for intensification and those for low-input farming, most often framed as an argument between economists and environmentalists, or ostriches and romantics as Paul Collier terms them. Ostriches in that proponents may have their head in the sand ignoring looming environmental and climate crises, romantics in that their advocacy of environmentally friendly approaches such as organic may seem appealing but could have negative impacts, for example increasing the cost of food to account for environmental externalities, which could exacerbate hunger.

The authors reject both approaches suggesting instead “a focus on maintaining ecosystem health through the management of terrestrial and aquatic environments as multifunctional mosaics”. In a sense combining intensive agriculture with neighbouring land that provides ecosystem services in a way that maximises ecosystem resilience. In particular the concepts of bioproductivity, “the ability of ecosystems to capture energy in organic form”, an ability which forms the basis of food production, and thresholds or planetary boundaries are discussed as key management guidelines. Ecosystems should be seen as “functional self-regulating systems” and should be managed to ensure a continual and adequate supply of ecosystem services. [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.

Deep emissions cuts needed by 2050 to limit warming: U.N. draft, Reuters

Teaching a humongous foundation to listen to small farmers, Grist

New report links aquaculture and poverty reduction, WorldFish

The MDG Hunger Target and the Contested Visions of Food Security, Fukuda-Parr & Orr

The Power of Numbers: Why the MDGs were flawed (and post2015 goals look set to go the same way), From Poverty to Power

At last, some evidence on the national impact of the MDGs. In Zambia, rivalry with other governments and measurable indicators have made a difference, From Poverty to Power

The GMO Fight Ripples Down the Food Chain, The Wall Street Journal

How GMO crops conquered the United States, Vox

Coming soon: Genetically edited fruit?, EurekAlert

Let’s Use Organic and GMOs to Feed the World, Huffington Post [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.

Africa Needs Science, Not Aid, The New York Times

Biotechnology in Africa, Springer

AfDB’s NERICA dissemination project receives US Treasury Award, PAEPARD

Can we change the goals of development without changing the implementers?, IIED

Fishy business, Nature

Climate change research goes to the extremes, Northeastern

Harvest of controversy, The Hindu

UPDATE 1-Brazil farmers say GMO corn no longer resistant to pests, Reuters

Geneticists offer clues to better rice, tomato crops, Phys.org

Climate change wins precarious slot in proposed development goals, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Milking it in Malawi, Global Food Security [Read more…]

Efficiency the key to feeding more people without environmental damage

ID-10028951A new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, published in Science, shows that an extra 3 billion people in the world need not lead to higher levels of hunger if existing cropland is used more efficiently, additionally reducing agriculture’s environmental impact. The report focused on 17 crops that account for 86% of the world’s crop calories as well as the majority of irrigation and fertilizer use. The hope is that the report can help guide and prioritise donors’ and policy makers’ activities for the greatest benefit.

The report identifies three areas of priority that, with the suggested actions, hold the most potential for meeting global food needs and reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint, a key pillar of sustainable intensification. Geographically the majority of these opportunities occur in China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan and Europe. To summarise we need:

1. To produce more food on existing land, in particular closing yield gaps. An estimated 850 million people could be fed by closing the most dramatic yield gaps, in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, by 50%.

Closing yield gaps may seem a simple task through technology and access to productive resources but the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) believe that we need to rethink how we approach yield gaps, taking a whole systems approach.

2. To grow crops more efficiently, in particular using water and nutrients more precisely and reducing climate impacts. The largest potential gains in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as pinpointed by the study, could come from deforestation in Brazil and India, rice production in China and India and crop fertilization in the U.S.

The U.S., China and India, and particularly their maize, rice and wheat production, were also found to be the largest sources of the overuse of nutrients in the world. Across the globe 60% of nitrogen and around 50% of phosphorus applications are in excess of amounts needed by crops. A 2012 article on China Dialogue highlights the dangers of overusing fertilizer. Improving the efficiency of fertilizer use would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Together with Pakistan these countries are also responsible for the majority of irrigation water use, water that could be reduced by 8 to 15% without yield penalties by improving crop water use efficiency.

3. To use crops more efficiently, in particular reducing food waste and reducing the proportion of crop calories going into livestock feed as opposed to directly for human consumption. Current crop animal feed, predominantly maize, could feed approximately 4 billion people. Such a shift would require widespread behavioural change, reducing the overreliance on meat in developed countries, although the report’s authors highlight the potential to shift crops from livestock to humans in times of crisis. [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.

Why illegal fishing off Africa’s coast must be stopped, The Guardian

Can Synthetic Biology Survive In A World Haunted By ‘Frankenfood’?, Forbes

Global land prices and the future of farming, Financial Times

We’re massively underestimating climate costs, experts warn, Grist

Agro-sylvo-pastoral systems to feed West and Central Africa, PAEPARD

Call to halve target for added sugar, BBC

A Global Biotechnology Perspective, Scientific American [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.

The Science of Designing Food for the World’s Poor, The Atlantic

Food’s big picture guy, The New York Times

The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. A Coup for Corporate Capital, Transnational Justice

EU diplomats agree to 7% biofuels cap, EurActive

Is There Such a Thing As Sustainable Corn?, Modern Farmer

Warrior queens battle for Africa’s food future, This is Africa

Can we develop a ‘stress test’ for national food systems?, Simon Maxwell

A farm is greater than the sum of its parts, CCAFS

Super foods: from the lab to the table, The Guardian

GM crops: No gain for small farmers, SciDev.Net [Read more…]