One of the common concerns that is about our expanding world population : is that our planet will not be able to feed this growing population. (As an aside, here is an interesting and visually appealing video on the continuing rise in the world’s population despite the slowing growth rate):
This is a reasonable concern – according to the UN, there are 1 billion people who are currently malnourished, a growing global population will surely only add to this problem. What can we do about this? Well, technology is one touted solution – it worked before with the massive increase in productivity during the green revolution in the years following the Second World War, will GM crops and other technological and scientific aids help us again as our population grows? Perhaps, but the authors of a recent report in Nature Magazine (helpfully summarized for those with less time here) have argued that the answer to our food shortage problem lies within our current technological reach. They suggest four solution strategies that could double the current food production of the world. In short, these four solutions are:
1. Stop Expansion of Agriculture into Sensitive Ecosystems. This would have benefits to biodiversity, carbon storage and important environmental services, especially when it is rainforest being cleared. Although this will result in food production losses, these losses are small on a global scale (the yield from tropical deforestation is apparently relatively meagre) and can be offset elsewhere.
2. Close Yield Gaps. There are significant opportunities to increase crop production in many parts of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe – especially through the use of “better deployment of crop varieties with improved management”. Such improvements require “overcoming significant economic and social challenges, including the distribution of agricultural inputs and seed varieties and improving market infrastructure.”
3. Increase Agricultural Resource Efficiency. Targeting “hotspots” of inefficiency, measured as the disproportionate use of water and nutrient inputs relative to production and encouraging the reduction of excess nutrient and water use in other areas.
4. Shift Diets and Reduce Waste. This is the one where we personally can do the most to increase food production – by changing our diet in small ways (perhaps by moving from grain fed beef to poultry, pork or pasture fed beef) and by changing our bio-energy policies (not using food crops in biofuels) would enhance food availability and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. Furthermore, we can do much to reduce waste – between one third and one half of all food produced is lost (!!!!) in the world. In the developing world over 40% of food is lost post-harvest through storage and transport conditions. In the developed world, food is not lost through production losses but because at the retail/consumer level more than 40% of food produced can be lost. This is simply staggering. What an indictment on our resource-rich society.
These four strategies surveyed would, according to the report, combine to:
“…increase global food availability by 100-180%, meeting projected demands while lowering greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity losses, water use and water pollution. However, all four strategies are needed to meet our global food production and environmental goals; no single strategy is sufficient.”
Furthermore, as the report expressly recognises, there are significant “economic and governance challenges to be overcome”. For example, the authors of the report state that reforming global trade policies and eliminating price-distorting subsidies and tariffs is “vital”. I can imagine that going down well with dairy lobbyists in the US, or agricultural lobbyists in the EU. (NZ should add this report to its arguments when it comes to negotiating with these giants! Come on, our butter is really good and it’s cheaper for your consumers and we need the money and you can stop subsidising inefficient local producers and spend the money on bailing the Greeks out…they really should hire me as a negotiator…)