By Kim Robson:
Earth’s human population is expected to reach 10 billion by the end of this century, and we already have nearly 1 billion people suffering from hunger. We all will need to find more efficient and less wasteful ways to use the enormous amount of food grown. Unfortunately, a number of factors, including inefficient use of water, fertilizers, and crop rotations, must be considered first.
According to a report published by Paul C. West and a team of researchers, improving several key areas could provide enough calories to nourish an additional 3 billion people while still considering environmental concerns.
West, who is co-director of the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota, says, “Our aim in writing this paper was to do an analysis that highlights that the opportunities and challenges to create a sustainable food system are concentrated in a small set of crops and places. Targeting actions in these places can have not only local, but also regional, and in some cases global impact.”
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that by 2050,120 million hectares of wilderness will be destroyed in order to establish farming in developing countries. Currently, agricultural land is not often reaching its potential, yielding as little as 50 percent of what it could produce. Closing that gap would reduce the need to clear more land for agriculture and still feed our growing population.
West and his team developed a set of goals to improve global food security:
Efficient Use of Fertilizer
Chemical fertilizers, for better or worse, are used in large quantities around the world. Based on previous studies, West and his team estimate that nitrogen- and phosphorus-based fertilizer use on wheat, rice and corn crops could be reduced by 13 to 29 percent and still produce the same yields. Further efficiency could be gained through adjustments in the timing, placement and type of fertilizer. Many farmers are now using GPS technology and lightweight drones equipped with infrared cameras to monitor crops’ needs for water and fertilizer, greatly reducing waste and runoff.
Efficient Use of Water
Improved irrigation systems and planting of crops that use less water are critically important for food security. For example, rice, cotton and sugar cane are among the thirstiest crops, but hemp needs only about half the land and half the water that cotton requires. Farmers, however, can’t always simply change their crops. Decisions about what to grow are based on climate, geography, regional differences, cultural tastes and market values, according to Lawrence Haddad, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Encourage Vegetarian Diets
Growing grain for meat stock feed is a breathtakingly inefficient use of agricultural land. It takes about 13 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat. That grain, if directly used to feed people, could provide enough calories for 4 billion people. However, West cautions us: “It would be very naive to assume that diets could radically shift soon. In fact, the trend toward more meat consumption is happening in many parts of the world. Our main point here is that the amount of calories that we already grow but feed to animals is a ‘huge’ number of calories. Even small changes in diet can have a profound impact.”
Reduce Food Waste
30 to 50 percent of global food production goes to waste because of inefficient preparation or inadequate storage facilities. To compensate for this waste, the United States requires 7 to 8 times more agricultural land than India. Reducing food waste in the United States, India and China could feed 413 million people per year. New York City is taking measures to reduce the shocking amount of food wasted in the city’s restaurants, and the supermarket chain Intermarché in France is doing the same by glorifying “ugly” produce that otherwise would be destroyed.
Says Haddad, “The research focuses on food availability, but I would say that most of the problem of hunger is around food access — do people have enough income to purchase food?”
While West acknowledges that his article does not address food access and nutrition, “It does address many of the key aspects of creating a sustainable food system using low-tech tools, including using fertilizer to boost production in food insecure areas to benefit the people in those areas as well as be less dependent on the major breadbaskets, minimizing waste, as well as reducing the environmental impacts through changes in management practices that increase efficiency. Access, nutrition, and cultural preferences all need to be addressed in concert with the aspects we addressed.”
Global food security also should address the different needs of the poor vs. the rich; maximize resilience of the food chain in the face of climate change and social conflicts; and minimize water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and fertilizer runoff. Tackling hunger in the 21st century will take a multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary approach to the complex issues of global food security.