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Feeding the world

23, June 2008

Max Rheese

Potentially, the world may need to consume more food per annum than it can produce with continued population growth, even if production matches consumption - is this sustainable?

The world population continues to grow with a UN forecast of 9.3 billion by 2050, up from the current 6.7 billion, although the rate of growth has been slowing since the 1960s and continues to slow.

As incomes rise, more people are living above the poverty line and therefore have a higher calorie intake, which also puts pressure on existing food reserves. Some of this pressure is derived from changing diets, such as more consumption of meat in China, which in turn influences the amount of grain used in increased livestock production.

Cropland formerly used to produce grain for human or animal consumption - now dedicated to production of ethanol - appears to be the most short-sighted change of direction imaginable for a whole host of reasons. This “great new idea” only adds to the concerns for the world’s food reserves.

Climate change, within the parameters currently being discussed, is not seen to be a threat on a global scale to maintaining or increasing production of food. Without doubt, local or regional detrimental impacts from climate change will be experienced - whether that is from global warming or cooling.

Recent food shortages in some developing countries are almost invariably linked to economic and political decisions, rather than food production problems on a global scale. Wheat is available, it just costs 92 per cent more than it did 12 months ago and corn is up 44 per cent as well. Food shortages in many of these areas have had more to do with the inability of the local population to pay for food. Certainly, food shortages in some local areas - particularly Sub-Saharan Africa - are linked directly to food production problems in those areas.

All of these influences - not to mention increasing global urbanisation, shortages of irrigation water, oil prices, poverty and civil unrest - add to the mix of opportunities and challenges in feeding the world.

So, can 21st century global agriculture - with all of the demands on the environment that are contingent with a population of 9 billion - meet the ideals of the Brundtland definition on sustainability?

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Or are we caught in an ever expanding cycle of growth and resource use that will see the globe tied to some sort of limit to growth as predicted by the Club of Rome in 1973? These were dire predictions that never eventuated, but that fit well with the apocalyptic environmental viewpoint of resource use - as espoused by most environment organisations to this day.

Putting aside local political and global economic influences - such as oil prices and recession - the three major factors for increasing food production are more arable land, the increased frequency of cropping and higher yields.

On a local scale more arable land is problematic for areas such as northern Africa and Asia as existing usage is about 90 per cent, however, on a global scale close to 3 billion hectares of extra land is potentially available for agriculture, although practically much of this will not be converted to production.

As an example there is 24 million hectares of cropland in the old Soviet Union laying idle due to political unrest and uncertainty. In Mozambique there is 36 million hectares of arable land available but only 3.9 million hectares is in use.

The UN expects arable land to increase by 13 per cent to 2030. Clearly, increases in land available for food production cannot just keep rising and still allow agriculture to conform to the concept of sustainability, however, it does appear that there will be sufficient arable land available until 2050 to feed the projected population of 9.3 billion - all other factors being equal.

Increased frequency of crop rotation together with higher yielding crop varieties, such as genetically modified (GM) crops will account for the majority of yield increases over the next few decades.

The upside to improved and modified varieties is the ability to cater for drought and frost tolerance, salinity and other traditional growing constraints, which in some localities will mean an increased range of arable land. The downside to increased cropping frequencies is the possibility of some cropping land being degraded without the adoption of improved farming techniques. Increased uptake of GM crops has seen a reduction in chemical usage of more than 10 per cent in some countries, to as high as 80 per cent reduction in others.

GM technology has the demonstrated ability to revolutionise the impact of agriculture on the environment. Each year more land is sown to GM crops as the production and environmental advantages become more obvious.

Not only has pesticide and herbicide use dropped dramatically with GM improved crops and changed farming practices, but many crops now are sown using low or no-till techniques, further improving soil retention as well as reducing use of diesel. Electronic soil moisture monitoring and computer aided irrigation are reducing water usage while crop yields per megalitre used continue to rise. Technology will continue to reduce food costs by increasing production per hectare.

One of the key factors in the sustainability of agriculture feeding the world is the decreasing rate of population growth in the last four decades. Many people overlook the fact that the rate of growth has consistently trended downwards from more than 2 per cent per annum in the 1960s to the projected rate of increase at 2050 of just 0.6 per cent per annum.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) believes this falling rate of population growth has lowered demand for food, which has influenced production to some degree. Global demand for cereals has declined from a growth rate of 2.5 per cent per annum in the 1970s to 1 per cent in the 1990s. Projecting ahead, the FAO estimate that total food consumption will grow at only a quarter of the rate of recent decades.

Key performance indicators for sustainably feeding the world are:

  • continued falling rate of population growth;
  • increasing the land available for agriculture, as projected, by around 15 per cent up to 2050;
  • increased yields through technological and agricultural advances;
  • reduced environmental impact through improved agricultural practices;
  • higher priority for local food production, which can also help reduce poverty; and
  • political and economic stability in developing countries.

Despite media headlines portraying imminent food shortages, agriculture can continue to feed the world on a sustainable basis, at least until 2050, using the knowledge that we now have. Obviously, there are many obstacles to achieving this, not the least of which is global co-operation to achieve a more equitable distribution of food and resources.

Improving the ability for crop production on a local or regional level by involving the local population, could be the single biggest step forward in improving food security for a substantial part of the world population. This for the most part is a political problem, not a farming problem.

There is a solid foundation for entertaining an optimistic outlook that the world can sustainably feed itself into the foreseeable future. The current population is the healthiest, best fed and with a longer life span than ever before in the history of the world. We have a more varied diet, less contact with disease and a greater degree of personal safety than ever before; all with the highest human population the world has ever known.

The challenge is to share these advantages, the technology that creates them and the governance that allows it - more equitably.


Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

Published in On Line Opinion 20 June 2008

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