Nov 14, 2011
How to feed 9 billion people without damaging the planet
By 2050 the Earth's population is projected to be more than 9 billion. Many people are concerned that we will not be able to feed everyone without seriously damaging the environment. But evidence gathered by a team of 21 researchers shows that it is possible to feed 9 billion people, as long as five key recommendations are met: halt farmland expansion in the tropics; close yield gaps on underperforming lands; use agricultural inputs more strategically; shift diets; and reduce food waste.
"For the first time, we have shown that it is possible to both feed a hungry world and protect a threatened planet," said Jonathan Foley, head of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. "It will take serious work. But we can do it."
Combining new data gathered from satellite imagery and crop records around the world with new computer models of global agricultural systems and their environmental impacts, the team developed a plan for doubling world food production while reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture.
The team began by characterizing agriculture today. Using new satellite and ground-based observations, the researchers documented changes in agricultural lands and their yields over the past 40 years. Currently, farm and ranch lands cover nearly 40% of Earth's land area – the largest use of land on the planet.
Though modern agriculture has boosted crop yields, the team found that increases between 1985 and 2005 were less than half what is commonly reported and are slowing. And because one-third of crops are used for livestock feed, biofuels and other non-food products, the number of hunger-abating calories produced per cultivated acre is far lower than it could be.
Writing in Nature, the researchers proposed a five-point plan for feeding the world while protecting the planet:
Halt farmland expansion. Reduced land clearing for agriculture, particularly in the tropical rainforests, achieved using incentives, such as payment for ecosystem services, certification and ecotourism, can yield huge environmental benefits without dramatically cutting into agricultural production or economic well-being.
Close yield gaps. Many parts of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe have substantial "yield gaps" caused by farmland that is not living up to its potential for producing crops. Closing these gaps through improved use of existing crop varieties, better management and improved genetics could increase current food production nearly 60%.
Use inputs more strategically. Strategic reallocation could substantially boost the benefit we get from precious inputs. Today water, nutrients and agricultural chemicals are often used too much in some areas and not enough in others.
Shift diets. Growing animal feed or biofuels on top croplands, no matter how efficiently, is a drain on human food supply. Dedicating croplands to direct human food production could boost calories produced per person by nearly 50%. Even shifting non-food uses such as animal feed or biofuel production away from prime cropland could make a big difference.
Reduce waste. One-third of the food farms produce ends up discarded, spoiled or eaten by pests. Eliminating waste in the path food takes from farm to mouth could boost food available for consumption another 50%.
"Previous research in this field has been fragmented or focused on only one of the above issues," study co-author, David Zaks, told environmentalresearchweb. "An integrated approach was urgently needed and this is the first time all the issues have been looked at in one study. Now we know what the solutions are we have to find a way of working together to make this happen."