By Robert de l’Escaille
Robert argues that the world faces dire food shortages and scarcity unless new techniques and a new mindset towards food production are applied. The age of growing land productivity is over and bold decisions will need to be made to feed a projected 2050 population of 8 billion people.
The golden age of agriculture is over. Growth based on the expansion of cropland area as seen until the 1950s, followed by improving land productivity through new technologies and productivity-based agricultural policies will fail us. It resulted in dramatic yield increases leading to what critics have called ‘huge stores of unwanted grain’, ‘butter mountains’, and ‘milk lakes’. Nevertheless the world’s food output is losing momentum as the backlog of agricultural technology fades, soil erodes, available arable land shrinks, and water becomes scarce. It is a struggle to find ways to feed our growing population. Just imagine that in 2020 one hectare will be required to feed more than five people compared to 1960 when it only had to feed two. This means that we have to be extraordinarily efficient with our resources.
The pressure of agriculture on natural resources is intense. The availability of land for agriculture is restricted; within the 13 billion hectares of total land only 1.6 billion is under farmland production. Meanwhile since 1960 one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost though erosion and degradation. Looking at water; only 3% of the world’s water is fresh with one-third being economically accessible. Global water scarcity has a critical impact on food security when agriculture accounts for almost 70% of freshwater withdrawals. With a growing wealthier and active population the demand for water will continue to surge exponentially as we’ve already seen it triple over the last 50 years. Adding a changing climate on top of this has a clear potential to affect our scarce soil and water resources, nevertheless the actual damage that would result from such change is unclear.
Times have changed and if we’re planning to feed 8 billion people by 2050 then its time we start rethinking our agricultural systems and make a mental shift of looking at agriculture and environment separately.
What happened in Russia and Sahel during the summer of 2010 is a warning that we can’t ignore our environment anymore. Extreme weather events are more frequent and impact the world’s food supply with global repercussions on food prices, people’s livelihoods, disrupting national economies, and in some cases leading to severe impacts on the stability of our societies. It’s not just about food production or biodiversity, but it’s about both coming together while accounting for climate change in a holistic way.
With the right incentives and practices it will be possible to overcome the threat of stagnant yields. We need to think about climate-specific solutions. Increase water use efficiency through technologies such as drip and pivot irrigation. Reduce leaching and erosion with minimum/no-tillage practices. Close the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles by appropriately applying livestock and human wastes. Invest in the production potential of millions of small-scale farmers. Substantially greater public and private investments in technology and knowledge are needed internationally, especially in low-income nations, to make agricultural systems more sustainable. Moving away from the ‘industrial’ to a ‘climate smart’ agriculture is our solution.
There are good examples of climate smart agriculture as seen in Niger where agroforestry techniques applied on five million hectares have benefited over 1.25 million households, sequestering carbon, and producing an extra half-million tons of grain per year.
Although the situation might seem doomed there is hope if we start finding solutions to increase farm productivity while strengthening farmers’ resilience to climate change. This can be achieved through a three-way approach based on a rapidly expanding array of biological and agronomic knowledge specific to agro-ecosystems and regions. Firstly by preserving our current natural assets, followed by increasing farm productivity with ‘climate smart’ technology and knowledge, and finally by investing in the potential of small-scale farmers globally. The new mindset must be directed to raising yields from existing farmlands in order to save land for nature. Only at that instant we will be able to overhaul the environmental deficits that are driving our food security to the edge.
Robert de l’Escaille currently works for the Agriculture Unit of the World Bank Group. He holds a M.Sc. in Environmental Economics and Policy from Imperial College London and a B.Sc. in International Food and Agri-Business from the Royal Agricultural College. You can follow him on Twitter at @rdelescaille
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not express the views of the World Bank, its Board of Executive Directors or the Governments they represent.