The single largest human impact on our finite planet comes from producing food. By 2050, there will be 2 billion to 3 billion more people on Earth with three times more per capita income, consuming twice as much as now. About 70% will live in cities — more than are alive today. By 2050, we may need three Earths to meet the demands of our consumption. We urgently need to find ways to do more with less.
In the past 18 months, members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academia and the private sector have come together to develop ways to reform the global food system by increasing food production without damaging biodiversity. Groups such as the Global Harvest Initiative (www.globalharvestinitiative.org) and the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (www.saiplatform.org) are working to freeze the footprint of food.
It is a daunting challenge. An estimated 70% of the land that is suitable for growing food is already in use or under some form of protection. For 50 years, farmland has grown at 0.4% a year, at the cost of natural habitat. In the past decade, as developing economies have grown, this has increased to 0.6% and, with it, more biodiversity has been lost.
Historically, technology has helped to stem this expansion of the agriculture frontier. During the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s and ’70s, productivity increased at a faster rate than population and consumption, and encroachment was slowed or even halted in many places. Now, technology lags behind rising population and consumption. It needs to catch up, fast.
We will all feel
the consequences of an unhealthy planet, but developing regions will bear the
heaviest burden. Nowhere are these realities more pressing than in
Freezing the footprint of food will require many actors working on several strategies simultaneously. There is no silver bullet. My experiences working with farmers in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and my current role as senior vice-president of market transformation at conservation group WWF, has shown me that we can find common ground with producers big and small to reduce the impact of key commodities.
I have identified
eight strategies that, if applied globally and simultaneously, will help to
reform the food system and protect the planet. Work has started on each of these
‘food wedges’, but no group is tackling them all at once. For example, WWF and
its partners are directly
supporting action on genetics, waste and agricultural carbon. Progress on the
others requires more ideas and help, especially in
Genetics. Ten crops account for 70–80% of all calories consumed. Only one is on track to double production by 2050. Most estimates suggest that all ten need to double to meet future demand. I’m an environmentalist and am convinced that to increase production, we can’t afford to ignore genetics, as long as it is applied in a responsible way. There has been a lot of debate over genetic modification, but there is in fact huge potential in using genetics through traditional plant breeding to select traits — techniques which humans have been using for more than 6,000 years. Now we have twenty-first century technology that allows even faster selection.
On 1 July, the
African Union formally stated that increasing the productivity of neglected
Better practices. For every crop, the best producers globally
are 100 times more productive than the worst. Even within nations, producers can
be 10 times more efficient than their neighbours, whether they farm maize (corn)
“We will gain most by improving the poorest-performing producers.”
such extension systems have been run by governments, but it is not clear if they
are up to the task in
Efficiency through technology. We need to double the efficiency of every agricultural input, including water, fertilizer, pesticides, energy and infrastructure. It currently takes one litre of water to produce one calorie of food. If we halved the water used and doubled the production we would quadruple the efficiency. The technology exists to do this, and the best producers can already achieve these results.
Degraded land. Instead of farming in new areas, we need to
rehabilitate degraded, abandoned or underperforming lands. Global goals should
be 100 million hectares rehabilitated by 2030 and 250 million by 2050. This
means not just halting erosion and degradation but reversing it through the
construction of terraces and the planting of trees and grasses. Most farmland in
Property rights. How many farmers will plant a tree or invest
in sustainability if they don’t own the land, not just for themselves but to
pass on to their children? The lack of clear property rights is a significant
barrier to food security in
Changing this will not be easy, because property rights are controlled by governments. Foreign assistance for economic development should be linked to the establishment of property rights for individuals. The African Union, NEPAD or the World Bank could take the lead in encouraging nations to ensure property rights and to document positive changes on the ground.
Waste. Globally, we waste as much as 30–40% of all food produced, or one of every three calories. If we could eliminate waste, we would halve the amount of new food needed by 2050. In rich nations, most food is wasted by individual and institutional consumers.
Consumption. One billion people don’t have enough food, and yet one billion people eat too much. We need to cut each of these figures in half by 2030, with the most urgent focus on those without enough to eat. About half of these people do not own land or produce their own food; they are split between rural and urban areas, but by 2050 most will live in cities.
About 40% of
children under the age of five in sub-Saharan
Carbon. Soil carbon — or organic matter — is key to conserving farmland for future generations. Indeed, the single best measure of rehabilitated soil is increasing organic matter from less than 0.5% to 2% or more. However, half of the world’s top soil, in which most soil carbon resides, has been lost in the past 150 years.
Two other approaches would help Africans to conserve their soils. First is a greater emphasis on tree crops and deep-rooted grasses. Trees and grasses build soil carbon and reduce erosion, increasing yields and the efficiency of inputs. Trees can be cash or subsistence crops, and can be assets in their own right (as a source of firewood).
Second, we need carbon markets for agriculture. Retailers or brand-named companies that purchase sugar, milk, coffee, cocoa or palm oil could also buy the carbon that the farmer sequestered or avoided releasing during production. The carbon would need to be third-party verified and aggregated at a mill or trading house. The goal should be for food producers to sell 1 billion metric tonnes of carbon per year by 2030. This would make food production more sustainable, marginal lands more viable, and producers more financially secure. Over the next year, WWF, with support from the Dutch government and food-linked companies including Unilever, Nutreco and Rabobank, will begin to explore the amount of carbon that could be bundled with commodities and sold in global markets.
Progress on some food wedges will occur faster than others. But every current system of food production needs to double productivity per hectare. If we cannot double the genetic potential of the 10–15 main calorie crops, on the same amount of land, we will fail to meet rising demand. NGOs and academics do not control the global food system, so instead they must try to change how governments and the private sector think about food production.