It happens that once you specialize in a topic, you get a little jaded about ‘broad overview’ talks. Whenever I go to one of those now, I notice myself mentally playing the ‘food security bingo’ game – what doesn’t the presenter mention? What is emphasized? The point scale in my head looks somewhat like this:
- Mentions food waste as a problem: + 3
- Speaks about diet choice: + 3
- Mentions food sovereignty: + 2
- Has a differentiated opinion about GMOs: + 1
- Opens with “how in the world will we feed 10 billion people?”: – 1
- Speaks about the green revolution as something to emulate: – 1
- Doesn’t question the current feed vs. food vs. fuel distribution: – 2
- Speaks about “incredible unused land resources in Africa and Latin America” (which are mainly pastoral or rainforest land): – 3
- Speaks about multinationals as saviors or alternatively as THE ENEMY: – 3
Like a blackjack player that is counting cards, I try to keep track of whether the tally in my head is positive or negative, and more often than not it finishes around 0 – which is always a slight disappointment. Not so with the World Resources Institute: they thoroughly impressed me with the broadness of their approach, the balanced variety of solutions – focusing on both demand- and supply-side issues – and the honesty with which they presented their research.
The talk that was presented at DG AGRI was based on the WRI’s upcoming World Resources Report which they dedicate to the challenge of “feeding more than 9 billion people by 2050” and “filling the food gap” (- 1). The speaker thus opened the talk by presenting the fact that we need to produce 70% more food by 2050 – making my eyebrows rise in anticipation of yet another talk focusing on production, production, and yield increases. But I was positively surprised: look at the list of recommendations they give, and look at the top of the list (list as presented in their press release):
- Reduce food loss and waste: 25 percent of calories from food grown for human consumption is currently lost or wasted. Cutting the rate of food loss and waste in half by 2050 would close 20 percent of the food gap.
- Shift diets: Increasing demand for pasture land caused more than half of all agricultural expansion since the 1960s, and beef consumption is projected to grow by 80 percent between 2006 and 2050. Reducing excessive demand for animal products, particularly by developed countries, would spare hundreds of millions of hectares of forests that otherwise would be cleared for grazing.
- Achieve replacement level fertility: Helping sub-Saharan Africa in its efforts to reduce fertility rates through improvements in healthcare and education could help close the food gap by 25 percent in the region, and generate important economic and social benefits.
- Improve soil and water management: Farmers can increase crop yields on existing agricultural land by implementing a suite of soil and water management practices such as agroforestry and water harvesting. Such practices, for instance, have doubled yields of maize and other grains in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Zambia over the past decade.
- Improve pastureland productivity: Pastures and grazing lands for livestock occupy twice the amount of land area than croplands worldwide. Farmers can increase milk and meat production on existing pasturelands through sustainable intensification practices such as using rotational grazing, improving livestock health care, and integrating shade trees and nitrogen-fixing shrubs into pastures, which reduces animal stress and improves grass quality.
- Use degraded lands: The world has many “low-carbon degraded lands,” areas where native vegetation was cleared long ago and that now have very low levels of carbon, biodiversity, and human use. Any future expansion in agricultural area should focus on restoring these degraded lands into productivity, with the consent of local communities.
- Avoid shifting agricultural land from one place to another: New satellite data show that even when total agricultural land area in a region remains steady or declines, agriculture shifts within the region causing millions of hectares of deforestation.
- Leave no farmer behind: Yield gaps, the difference between a farm’s actual yields and its potential yields, still exist in many places. Focusing on bringing the most inefficient farmers up to standard farming efficiency levels will help close yield gaps and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. Ensuring that women farmers have access to the same resources—such as fertilizer, seeds, finance, and land—as male farmers is an important step.
After the presentation was over, I was thoroughly impressed – this was one level-headed, differentiated, and very broad picture of working food systems of the future. I also found that the report as such could be a great one-stop resource for bringing the issue closer to people who don’t know that much about it, especially as the WRI has done an impressive job at providing additional resources such as topic-specific publications, presentations, maps and graphics here. Check them out and let me know what you think!