Theodor Friedrich 2015-02-23 23:29:20
A New Paradigm for Feeding the World in 2050 When the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations was founded in 1945, it was with the objective to fight hunger in the world. Since then, some progress has been made. The first of the Millennium Development Goals—to halve the proportion of hungry people in the world by 2015—appears within reach. At present, hunger along with poverty is more a problem of access to food than of availability. Therefore, hunger is being successfully addressed in many countries by political will and social programs. However, for the expected population of 9.2 billion in 2050, global food production will have to increase by about 70%, a conservative estimate considering the increased demand for animal products and bioenergy and the threats from climate change. Despite this challenge, FAO has revised its overall goal from reducing hunger to eradicating hunger. We can assume that FAO member countries, in accepting this change, are not pursuing an impossible target. There is little hope of achieving the necessary production increase from expanding the cultivated land area. More than 80% of the necessary production increase will have to come from yield increases. Yet, the yield increases for all major food crops are declining. Therefore, this challenge will not be met by continuing with a concept of farming that caused the problem in the first place. The problem is not in the genetic potential of crops or the lack of production inputs. Instead, the problem lies in the degradation of natural resources and their yield-related functions, which do not allow closing the yield gap anymore. Therefore, FAO has proposed a different paradigm for agricultural production: sustainable intensification, as described in the book Save and Grow (www.fao.org/ag/saveand-grow). Sustainable intensification means achieving the highest possible production, applying all necessary technologies, while keeping the environmental impact below the threshold of natural recovery. FAO would not propose this paradigm change if it did not have “proof of application” that it actually works for farmers. Agricultural production can only be considered sustainable if the soil health and productive capacity are maintained in an optimal condition. Over the past millennia, agricultural land use globally has led to physical, chemical, biological, and hydrological degradation of the soil, and this process continues unabated on most farm lands. This is true for farms of all sizes, climatic regions, and economic development levels. The dominant global farming paradigm is based on mechanical tillage. In this paradigm, the “best practices” for crop, soil, nutrient, water, and pest management are the technical state of the art and are presumed to be suitable for obtaining high production with limited environmental damage. However, in many cases, soil degradation and environmental damage can only be controlled, not avoided, and this damage is generally accepted as an inevitable side effect of farming. This view is now being challenged, and it is increasingly considered outdated. Tillage-based farming practices cannot meet the combined objectives of production intensification with ecosystem services that are now being demanded by society. In the case of the soil, the degradation and erosion caused by tillage are always greater, by orders of magnitude, than the natural formation of soil. Hence, tillage systems cannot be sustainable. A long list of literature explores this problem, from Edward Faulkner’s Ploughman’s Folly (1943) to the more recent Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery (2007). The logical response to this challenge is a farming system that does not mechanically disturb the soil and maintains the soil in a healthy state—a no-till system with biologically and ecologically active soil. Analyzing farmers’ experiences with no-till around the world, FAO has come up with a definition for such a system, commonly known as conservation agriculture (CA), based on three interlinked principles for any land-based production system: • Minimum or no mechanical soil disturbance (permanently). • Permanent organic soil cover. • Diversification of species. When implemented correctly, CA delivers on multiple objectives: it increases yield and production in a sustainable way, closing the yield gap with reduced inputs over time, while enhancing ecosystem services. It is environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable and highly productive, and it responds to the demand for climate change adaptation and mitigation. I have seen many farmers on all continents improve their livelihoods and happiness after adopting CA on their farms. With CA, FAO had a sound basis for sustainable intensification, and hence FAO has been promoting CA around the world, along with a growing number of organizations and institutions. Globally, CA is growing exponentially at 10 million ha per year, having reached 155 million ha in 2013, which represents 11% of global cropland. In some countries, CA is now the dominant farming system, and the oldest CA farms date back over 50 years. Obviously, despite CA’s many advantages, such a complex paradigm change in farming requires continued policy and institutional support for it to spread fast enough to help meet the challenge of feeding the world in 2050. This challenge is still facing us, and it is a question of political will, as is the eradication of hunger at the present time. Given that political will, there is no question that the challenge to feed the world in 2050 can be met with conservation agriculture, without the need of technological miracles that are yet to be invented. ASABE Member Theodor Friedrich is co-founder of FAO’s conservation agriculture initiative and for more than a decade has led FAO’s global work on CA. He currently serves as FAO’s representative in Cuba; firstname.lastname@example.org. Top photo Matthew Collingwood | Dreamstime. Mid-page photo by the author.
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