Better use of world’s existing cropland could feed 3 billion more people – without trashing the planet
One of the daunting challenges of the coming century will be figuring out how to grow enough food for everyone on the planet. And all without destroying the planet.
Feeding a growing human population without increasing stresses on Earth’s strained land and water resources may seem like an impossible challenge.
Fixing farms in just a few countries could help feed billions more
That’s harder than it sounds. The global population is expected to swell from 7 billion today to 9.6 billion in 2050. On top of that, countries like China and India are getting richer and eating more meat — a particularly resource-intensive type of food.
Then there’s the environment to consider. Farms have become a major source of nitrogen pollution. Around the world, freshwater aquifers are dwindling. And, perhaps most crucially, countries like Brazil are trying to cut back on deforestation — which in turn makes it harder to find new cropland.
That means the world’s farmers will somehow have to squeeze vastly more productivity out of existing farmland and reduce their environmental footprint. So far, they’re not on track: one recent study suggested that crop yields haven’t been rising fast enough to meet future food demands.
So how can countries change this?
According to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of 3 billion more people and decrease agriculture’s environmental footprint.
More than half of the fertilizer currently poured on to crops in many countries is wasted. About 60% of the nitrogen applied to crops worldwide is not needed, as well as about half of the phosphorus, an element whose readily available sources are dwindling.
Cutting waste even by modest amounts would also feed millions, the authors found: between one-third and a half of the viable crops and food produced from them around the world are wasted, in the developing world usually because of a lack of infrastructure such as refrigerated transport, and in the rich world because of wasteful habits.
At least 40 percent of fruits and vegetables grown in India go bad before being sold due to a lack of refrigeration or poor roads. Pakistan loses about 16 percent of the grain it stores because poor infrastructure leads to rodent infestations. And even in the United States, many vegetables are rejected in the fields simply because they look unsightly.
Looking after water could also yield vast dividends: if the water used for irrigation was pinpointed more efficiently to where it is needed, then much more could be grown, but currently much of it is sprayed uselessly over crops. Between 8% and 15% of the water currently used could be saved, the study suggested.
But the research also found that at least 4 billion people could be fed with the crops we currently devote to fattening livestock, fueling the argument that the over-reliance on meat in the west and among the growing middle classes in the developing world is an increasing problem when it comes to feeding the world.
For instance, increasing agricultural productivity in Africa, where the actual crop yields lag severely behind their potential, could produce enough to feed hundreds of millions of people.
By focusing fertilizer use where it is needed, and avoiding overuse, countries could also bring down greenhouse gas emissions markedly. Agriculture currently amounts to between one-fifth and one-third of greenhouse gases, coming from deforestation, methane and fertilizers.
Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food. – Paul West, of Minnesota’s Institute of the Environment
The study also brings up the more contentious issue of meat consumption. Beef, in particular, is an inefficient way to grow food — it takes about 30 calories of feed to make 1 calorie of beef. By contrast, it takes just 7 calories of feed to make 1 calorie of chicken. Shifting the global diet a bit could allow the world to grow more calories on existing cropland.
What’s more, an increasing portion of cropland is currently being used to grow biofuels like ethanol, particularly in the United States and Europe. That, too, makes a difference.
If all existing cropland devoted to animal feed and biofuels were converted to crops meant for direct human consumption, we’d be able to grow food for an extra 4 billion people. Obviously that’s not simple to do, but it gives some sense of the scale here.
Taken together, the above studies wouldn’t necessarily ensure that the world could grow enough food sustainably to feed everyone adequate. But they’d certainly represent a massive improvement.