Time to turn sustainable: Agriculture is the largest single cause behind global warming and loss of ecosystem services. In a recently published article in Nature, an international team of scientists propose a five-point plan for feeding the world while protecting the planet. Photo: B. Ekberg/Azote
Is feeding nine billion people possible?
Yes, but only with more sustainable agriculture, says international team of scientists.
"Feeding the nine billion people anticipated to live on Earth in 2050 without exhausting the Earth's natural resources is possible, provided that we adopt a more sustainable food production approach."
 
This is the conclusion from a paper just published in Nature by an international team of scientists. The study concludes that we can feed the increasing amount of people on this planet without exhausting the world's resources if we successfully pursue sustainable food production on five key fronts: halt farmland expansion, improve crop production, more strategic use of water and nutrients, reduce food waste and dedicate croplands to direct human food production.

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"Agriculture is the single biggest threat to the global environment, through the loss of ecosystem services and global warming, and at the same time the key to human wellbeing in all societies. We now have the opportunity to not only cool the planet, but also to build resilient societies, and improve human wealth", says co-author and centre director Johan Rockström.

Doubling world food production
Together with scientists from the University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, McGill University, UC Santa Barbara, Arizona State University and the University of Bonn, Rockström has for two years tried to find an answer to what could be the most compelling question facing humanity today.

Based on data gathered about crop production and environmental impacts using satellite maps and on-the-grounds records, the scientists propose a five-point plan for doubling the world's food production while reducing environmental impacts.

"Our research has shown that it is possible to both feed a hungry world and protect a threatened planet," says lead author Jonathan Foley, head of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment.
 
The five-point plan consists of the following:
 
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"— places where farmland 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 with nearly 60 percent.

Use inputs more strategically — Current use of water, nutrients and agricultural chemicals suffers from what the research team calls "Goldilocks' Problem": too much in some places, too little in others, rarely just right. We need to use water and nutrients in more intelligent ways: less where it isn't needed, and more where it is. This will ensure that we can grow more food, but with less harm to the environment.
 
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 percent. 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 percent.

"What is new and exciting here is that we considered solutions to both feeding our growing world and solving the global environmental crisis of agriculture at the same time," Johan Rockström says.
 
"We focused the world's best scientific data and models on this problem, to demonstrate that these solutions could actually work — showing where, when and how they could be most effective. No one has done this before," Rockström and his colleagues argue.

A response to a daunting triple threat
The research was also a response to what lead author Foley calls "a daunting triple threat."
 
"First, a billion people currently lack adequate access to food, not only creating hunger but also setting the stage for worldwide instability. Second, agriculture, the single-most important thing we do to benefit humanity, is also the single biggest threat to the global environment — including the land, water and climate that make Earth habitable. Third, with 2 to 3 billion more people expected in coming decades, and increasing consumption of meat and biofuels, food demand will be far greater in 2050 than it is today," Foley says.

Proposing solutions to global food and environmental problems is nothing new. But a consistent weakness has been that the solutions often are fragmented and insufficiently specific. This research presents solutions on how to feed an increasingly growing world while simultaneously dealing with the environmental crisis of agriculture.

See TEDxTC seminar with Jon Foley on how agriculture is changing the face of our planet:

References
Jonathan A. Foley, Navin Ramankutty, Kate A. Brauman, Emily S. Cassidy, James S. Gerber, Matt Johnston, Nathaniel D. Mueller, Christine O´Connell, Deepak K. Ray, Paul C. West, Christian Balzer, Elena M. Bennett, Stephen R. Carpenter, Jason Hill, Chad Monfreda, Stephen Polasky, Johan Rockström, John Sheehan, Stefan Siebert, David Tilman & David P. M. Zaks. (2011) Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature10452

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Johan Rockström is an internationally recognized scientist on global sustainability issues. He is a leading scientist on global water resources, and strategies to build resilience in water scarce regions of the world, with more than 15 years experience from applied water research in tropical regions, and more than 100 research publications in fields ranging from applied land and water management to global sustainability.

2011-10-13 | Sturle Hauge Simonsen

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