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Food pro­duc­tion must increase 70% by 2050 to feed world’s population

pub­lished 30 Novem­ber 2011 | mod­i­fied 23 Decem­ber 2011

Wide­spread degra­da­tion of land and water resources makes feed­ing the world’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion a pro­found chal­lenge, accord­ing to a FAO report pub­lished last Mon­day. About 40% of the earth’s land sur­face that is suit­able for food pro­duc­tion is either highly or mod­er­ately degraded, and the trend sug­gests worse for the future.

The United Nations Food and Agri­cul­tural Organ­i­sa­tion (FAO) first global assess­ment of the state of the planet’s land and water resources found that cli­mate change cou­pled with poor farm­ing prac­tices had con­tributed to a decrease in pro­duc­tiv­ity of the world’s farm­land fol­low­ing the boom years of the “green rev­o­lu­tion”, when crop yields soared thanks to new tech­nolo­gies, pes­ti­cides and the intro­duc­tion of high-​yield crops.

FAO’s def­i­n­i­tion of degra­da­tion extends beyond soil and water degra­da­tion, and its assess­ment includes other aspects of affected ecosys­tems, for instance bio­di­ver­sity loss.

Large parts of all con­ti­nents are expe­ri­enc­ing land degra­da­tion, with par­tic­u­larly high inci­dences down the west coast of the Amer­i­cas, across Mediter­ranean region of South­ern Europe and North Africa, across the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and through­out Asia. The great­est threat is the loss of soil qual­ity, fol­lowed by bio­di­ver­sity loss and water resources deple­tion. In west­ern Europe, highly inten­sive agri­cul­ture has led to pol­lu­tion of soil and aquifers and a result­ing loss of bio­di­ver­sity. In the high­lands of the Himalayas, the Andes, the Ethiopian plateau and south­ern Africa, soil ero­sion has been cou­pled with an increased inten­sity of floods. In the report it is said that water around the world is becom­ing ever more scarce and sali­nated, while ground­wa­ter is becom­ing more pol­luted by agri­cul­tural runoff and other toxins.

To meet the needs of the world’s expected 9-​billion-​strong pop­u­la­tion food pro­duc­tion must have increased with 70% by 2050, accord­ing the FAO. This means 1 bil­lion tonnes more sta­ple foods such as wheat, rice and other cere­als, and 200 mil­lion more tonnes of beef and other live­stock prod­ucts. But as it is, most avail­able farm­land is already being farmed, and not in a very sus­tain­able man­ner, unfor­tu­nately. Farm­ing prac­tices that lead to soil ero­sion and wast­ing of water must be aban­doned. There­fore, a major “sus­tain­able inten­si­fi­ca­tion” of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity on exist­ing farm­land will be necessary.

How to turn the tide

To achieve this the effi­ciency of water use by agri­cul­ture must be improved, as most irri­ga­tion sys­tems across the world per­form below their capac­ity. New inno­v­a­tive farm­ing prac­tices are para­mount, together with improved irri­ga­tion scheme man­age­ment, invest­ment in local knowl­edge and mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, knowl­edge devel­op­ment and train­ing can increase water-​use effi­ciency. Exam­ples like con­ser­va­tion agri­cul­ture, agro-​forestry, inte­grated crop-​livestock sys­tems and inte­grated irrigation-​aquaculture sys­tems hold the promise of expand­ing pro­duc­tion effi­ciently to address food secu­rity and poverty while lim­it­ing impacts on ecosystems.

All this requires increas­ing invest­ment in agri­cul­tural devel­op­ment. The invest­ment deemed nec­es­sary until 2050 is 750 bil­lion for irri­ga­tion water man­age­ment for devel­op­ing coun­tries alone, with another 120 bil­lion for soil con­ser­va­tion and flood control.

Finally, the obvi­ous capac­ity and capa­bil­ity build­ing is pro­moted by FAO to cope with today’s emerg­ing chal­lenges of water and land resource management.

(Sources: FAO, 28.11.2011; the Guardian, 28.11.2011)

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