Facing climate change and nine billion mouths to feed by 2050, experts shared their thoughts on the future of food security.
In a recent live chat, a panel of experts joined readers online to discuss the future of sustainable agriculture in the face of changing weather driven by climate change and increasing competition for food. Here are 10 things we learned:
1. We shouldn’t just “accept” climate change
Just because climate change is happening and its effects are already being felt, we shouldn’t give up on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Agricultural GHG emissions, make up about 25% of global GHG emissions, but there’s a lot that can be done to reduce this.
Richard Waite, associate, Food, Forests and Water Program, World Resources Institute explains: “By intensifying agriculture on existing land and protecting the remaining forests, we can eliminate emissions from land-use change. And by addressing key emissions from agricultural production – from cows and other ruminants, from fertilizers, and from rice production practices, we can greatly reduce emissions from agricultural production.”
2. We don’t need to “accept” a world with 9.6 billion people by 2050
The world population is growing, but fertility rates have fallen rapidly over the last few decades as girls gain better access to education and reproductive health services. African governments have made health and education a priority but greater investment could reduce the population challenge and the demand for food.
This is especially important in sub-Saharan Africa where half of population growth between now and 2050 will occur. A recent report from WRI estimates that achieving replacement level fertility (the rate of fertility at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next) in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050 would reduce food demand by around 600tn kilocalories (kcal) per year by the mid-century. This would close 9% of the 6,500tn kcal per year global gap between food available in 2006 and food needed in 2050.
3. Switching crops is the future
Emphasis will be on climate smart agriculture in the short-term, but in 10 to 20 years time, the focus will be on switching crops, says Jason Clay, senior vice president, market transformation. As climate change affects commercial crops, alternatives will have to be sought out. Clay points that sorghum is already being substituted for corn and maize because it can be used in feed and produce like beer. In Mexico, the government is looking to varieties of cocoa to replace coffee crops, which may not be suitable to grow by 2025 due to blight and heat as a consequence of climate change.
With the right technical assistance and packages of better genetics, management practice and inputs, switching crops could be an opportunity for smaller farmers struggling with current crops to leapfrog previous performance and become more productive.
4. Research breakthroughs need more investment
Moving to adapted crop varieties that are more resilient to climate change is feasible, says Chris Brown, general manager for environmental sustainability, at agri-business Olam International. But for the next wave of research breakthroughs, the FAO has estimated that we will need $45-$50bn annual spending globally. It’s currently at $4bn.
5. Cultivating trees on farms can boost crop yields
According to Waite, over the last few decades, farmers in Niger have managed the natural regrowth of native Faidherbia trees across 5m hectares. The Faidherbia fixes nitrogen in the soil, protects fields from wind and water erosion and contributes organic matter to soils when its leaves drop. Compared to conventional farms in the country, yields of maize in these agroforestry systems can be doubled and farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zambia are taking note.
6. Small-scale farmers are vital to domestic food security
Small-scale farmers have a guaranteed and growing market for staple crops, but the UK produces 24% less food than it consumes, says Charles Tassell, farmer and co-founder of AgriChatUK. This comes today, as MPs warn that the UK’s ability to feed itself is threatened by complacency. Over the last 20 years, the UK’s self-sufficiency for domestically-grown food has fallen from 87% to 68%, while yields of its most important staple crop, wheat, have not increased for at least the last 15 years.
Brown argues that governments, banks and companies must coordinate to support the 500m global smallholders to scale-up agri-production enterprises. This support should include legal land tenure, global policies for a level playing field, access to capital and markets, structured training (both agriculture and business development), and investment in technology and infrastructure.
7. Urban farms suit tomatoes, not cows
If urban farmers reduce the need for transport, refrigeration and packaging, and source inputs from local waste streams, then city farms could offer a sustainable alternative for growing fruit and vegetables, says Oscar Rodriguez, director of Architecture and Food. However, livestock farming and urban living make a less practical combination.
8. Meat is off the menu
Achieving replacement level fertility, reducing food loss and waste, reducing biofuel demand for food crops and shifting our diets, will all go some way to closing the gap between food available and food required. Any meaningful change to consumption patterns and the environmental impacts of food production though, will have to involve knocking animal products off the menu, especially beef. Chris Hunt, director of GRACE’s food program, points to consumer campaigns like Meatless Monday as evidence of trending in the right direction.
9. The definition of a “good” farmer is culturally complex
What is good criteria for one person, may be shocking for another, says Louise Manning, senior lecturer in food production management, Royal Agricultural University. In terms of animal welfare, stocking density might be considered an indicator of negative performance but in terms of resource management, a positive one.
10. Everyone has a role to play
The WRI report on Creating a Sustainable Food Future estimates that we need about 70% more food in 2050 than we have today in order to provide every one of the 9.6 billion world population with a daily intake of 3,000 calories. It’s a huge challenge, but unlike other sustainability challenges, everyone can play a part in the solution.
Everyone needs to eat, so be it reducing food loss and waste, eating lower-impact diets or investing in sustainable production - countries, companies, and consumers can make a difference. Surrounded by abundance, the challenge is making consumers care. On this, Liz Bowles, head of farming at the Soil Association, points out that if everyone tried to grow their own vegetables it would bring home just how difficult food production is.