How to double food production and reduce damage to the environment?
The world is facing numerous challenges dictated by the dynamic development of socio-economic relations between countries, as well as climate change that is pressuring humanity to change established patterns and habits. One of these challenges is how to produce enough food for the population, which is estimated to grow to close to 10 billion by 2050. It is estimated that it will be necessary to double food sources by the mentioned year, because the increased food needs, in addition to the growth of the population, are also affected by the change in eating habits – increasing the use of meat in the meal structure. The question is how the increased production will affect the environment.
What is the problem with agriculture?
In May 2014, Jonathan Foley, head of the Institute for Environmental Affairs at the University of Minnesota, wrote an interesting article for National Geographic, as part of a series of articles on the future of human nutrition. The text deals with solutions for increased food production with less damage to the environment.
The author states at the beginning of the text: “When we think about threats to the environment, we usually think about cars and factory chimneys, and not about what we eat.” With this sentence, the author practically introduces us to the fact that agriculture is one of the biggest polluters of our planet. It is stated that agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than all cars, trucks, trains and planes combined. These gases in agriculture come from the production of artificial fertilizers based on fossil fuels, then from methane emitted by livestock and that coming from rice fields, from nitrogen oxides from fertilized fields, as well as from carbon dioxide that occurs in deforestation to increase arable land. Additionally, water is a critical resource when it comes to agriculture, as this activity uses huge amounts of this important resource. Given the projected population growth of more than 30% by 2050, as well as growing food needs especially in developing countries (China, India, etc.), the fact is that agriculture really poses a huge challenge to preserving the environment.
What are the potential solutions?
These challenges trigger discussions about what is the best solution to increase food production and meet growing needs. In short, there are two currents in these discussions. One side advocates that genetic engineering (GMO) is the solution, while the other side advocates the application of organic production methods without the use of modern engineering and chemicals. These two sides are moving further and further away from each other, instead of moving towards a common solution. With this in mind, the author of the text met with his team of scientists with the question of how to double food production and at the same time reduce the damage to the environment caused by agriculture. After a detailed analysis of this crucial issue, a proposal of five steps was given that could represent a solution to the issue of food production in the near future:
1) Stopping the expansion of agricultural land
Large areas covered with forests, meadows, etc. are being cleared in order to expand the area of agricultural land. Practically, one natural biodiversity is destroyed in order to produce food for growing needs. However, as the author states, most of the land in the tropics that is being cleared is used for cattle breeding, soybean growing (GMO), timber and palm oil production.
2) Higher yields on existing farms
The Green Revolution brought prosperity and wealth to many parts of the world. However, that has left and is leaving harmful consequences for the environment. Now the focus must be on the use of high technology, modern information technology systems and the principles used in organic production. With these tools, it is inevitable to increase the yield on existing farms.
3) More efficient use of resources
The mentioned green revolution brought with it a very intensive use of resources, first of all water and chemicals obtained by processing fossil fuels. Innovative solutions, which are reflected in the use of sensors, GPS technology, etc. allow chemicals to be applied in precise measures adapted to the given conditions in a field. The same goes for water, through the use of precise drip irrigation systems. Also, organic agriculture offers many solutions and is practically based on the sustainable use of exclusively natural resources.
4) Change the diet
Jonathan Foley presents an interesting fact here – only 55% of the calories from the world’s crops are used by humans directly for food, the rest is used for livestock (36%) or converted into biofuels and industrial products (9%). It goes on to say: “Out of 100 calories of cereals we feed animals, we get only 40 new calories in milk, 22 calories in egg, 12 in chicken, 10 in pork and 3 in beef.“ From all this, at least two solutions are imposed, and that are a change in diet and a reduction in crop production for biofuels.
5) Waste reduction
Food losses and waste are one of the biggest challenges when it comes to feeding the world. Namely, about 50% of food is lost or thrown away in the world today. In richer countries, this waste is generated at higher levels of consumption (households, restaurants, markets, etc.), while in less developed countries, the loss occurs on the way between producers and markets due to poor storage infrastructure and inadequate transport. Therefore, the solutions lie in changes in consumer habits (better procurement planning, reduction of portions in restaurants, etc.). Also, especially in less developed countries, significant investments are needed in the technology of production and storage of products, as well as in adequate transport. The author states that “of all the options aimed at increasing the amount of food available, working on the problem of reducing food waste would be one of the most effective.”
If these solutions were applied together, food stocks would double and the impact on the environment would be significantly reduced.