Farming methods threaten world food production

Farming methods around the world that have degraded soils, parched aquifers, polluted waters, and caused the loss of animal and plant species are putting food production at risk, according to the first ever audit of world agriculture’s ability to sustain human life.

Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems (PAGE): Agroecosystems, by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the World Resources Institute (WRI), using satellite and other mapping data, states that soil degradation has dramatically reduced productivity, which is likely to cause severe repercussions on the poor heavily-populated nations. This means that agricultural lands will now face an enormous challenge in providing food for the expected population surge of 1.5 billion people over the next 20 years, say the NGOs.

“Our current global population, currently about six billion people, is expected to increase by more than one quarter over the next two decades,” said Ian Johnson, Chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and a World Bank Vice President. “We must find ways to increase food production to sustain growing populations in developing countries. But this challenge must be accomplished without major increases in the amount of new land under cultivation, which would further threaten forests and biodiversity, and without resorting to unsustainable faring practices.”

According to Stanley Wood, IFPRI scientist and co-author of the report, since agricultural land dominates the earth’s populated landscapes, we need it to do more than produce more food. “We also rely on agricultural land to provide other goods and services, including clean water and habitat for threatened species,” he said, adding that agricultural lands could produce more food and help to prevent global warming by returning more carbon to the soils. “Unfortunately, many current agricultural practices actually contribute to global warming,” he said. “A recent report by nearly 1,000 of the world’s leading climate scientists demonstrates that global warming is increasing faster than originally estimated (see related story). In recent decades, scientists have noted an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts in Asia and Africa.”

The report also reveals that soil degradation is widespread (see related story), that 20% of the world’s forests have been converted to agriculture, and that agriculture consumes 70% of the freshwater withdrawn annually by humans.

The development of new policies, technologies, and institutional arrangements will be essential if we are to expand the “production possibility frontier”, states the report. Society will need to draw on all means at its disposal, including modern biological, agricultural, environmental and information sciences, as well as the local knowledge of farmers and others.

A dynamic agriculturally economy, supportive policies for agricultural development and investment and strong institutions for information dissemination, research, and marketing are essential, though not enough to promote more environmentally sustainable practices, says the report. Farmer investment in good land-husbandry practices tends to increase where:

  • agricultural markets perform more effectively, reducing the costs of inputs and increasing effective prices received by farmers;
  • profitable farming opportunities raise the value of agricultural land and water;
  • technological changes make higher, sustainable yields possible; and
  • land tenure is secure.

    We use up nutrients and water faster than they can be replenished at our own peril, points out Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Director General of the IFPRI. “By analogy, you cannot continue to take more out of your bank account than you put in. Sooner or later, you’ll run out of money,” he said.

    Analysis for the report was also provided by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the International Fertiliser Development Centre, the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, the International Soil Reference and Information Centre, and individual experts from more than 25 countries. PAGE Agroecosystems is one of five technical reports assessing the world’s ecosystems (see related story).

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