Will our current agriculture system sustain us without killing the planet? In short, no. We need to increase food production by half.
Experts estimate the planet will need to accommodate 10 billion people by the year 2050. This is according to findings reported by the World Resources Institute. Therefore, food production must increase by half worldwide within the next 30 years. Otherwise, we’ll be unable to sustain the projected global population.
Even more jarring, an extra 7,400 trillion calories per year will be required in 2050 over that of 2010. In fact, if food production were to continue as it is, we’d need a landmass double the size of India for farming.
Now that you know we need to increase our food production by half, would it surprise you to learn that much of what we already produce is never consumed?
As it is, between 30 and 50 percent of the food the world produces rots in fields or in landfills. Hence, this results in wasted energy and water. It also generates sizeable amounts of greenhouse gases. These gases are hefty contributors to our current climate crisis.
The Impact of Farming on Biodiversity
In addition to large-scale waste, intensive farming has already impacted biodiversity and the global environment. For example, pesticides have been instrumental in boosting fruit and cereal production. But, they negatively impacted bee and insect populations – killing them in large numbers.
Fertilizers that have enhanced soil have also created unintended consequences like ammonia-related air pollution and nitrous oxide emissions.
So, now we’re faced with a situation that requires us to meet opposing goals. We must produce more food while also eliminating the wasteful agricultural practices. And, do it without negatively impacting the lives of farmers and other agricultural industries.
Experts are calling for a second revolution, one that will encompass our consumption habits, growing methods, and the entire food economy.
It will require farmers, consumers, retailers, and governments coming together to make universal shifts. Over the last century only one future has been offered – industrialization. That simply won’t work in the next century.
Instead, it will require a variety of alternatives. This includes a mixture of ancient and new technology, which all have their place and purpose.
In the words of Timothy D. Searchinger, Research Scholar, Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, “There is not one huge conceptual change where you do everything differently and everything will be OK. There is not one single answer. There are lots and lots of things we can and need to do.”
So, What Does a Food Production Revolution Look Like?
In early 2019 a report released by the EAT-Lancet commission addressed this question. They made a list of imperative societal recommendations. They believe these will help the world’s growing population guarantee its food security against global warming.
Recommendations include switching to a diet that is low in sugar and meat, but higher in vegetables, fruits, and grains. Lowering fossil fuel use and emissions, stimulating small and medium farming, and reducing food waste are also on the list.
Equally important, this matches a similar call for “transformative change in our food systems” made by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in 2019. They happen to be the primary group in charge of the world’s future food supply.
The most obvious answer to intensive industrialized farming in the modern world is organic farming. To date, the bio or organic products only make up about 5.5% of food sales in the US, even less in the UK at about 2%.
These low numbers are most likely because of strict rules organic farmers must abide by when raising their livestock and growing their crops. Regulations include only using antibiotics on animals when necessary, managing their land in a way that provides habitats for wildlife, and eliminating almost all chemical fertilizers.
These high standards are why many farmers are resistant to the change. The time and monetary investments seem out of reach for them, but it doesn’t have to be.
Sustainable Farming without Going Organic
There is a path towards more sustainable farming without needing the organic stamp of approval. This is known as agroecology, farming that “centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources.”
Agroecology includes organic farming but operates in an unofficial capacity, it does not demand inspection or certification. It could be a universally embraced alternative to the detrimental effects of industrialized farming.
Some simple practices include sowing cover crops like clover to suppress weeds while restoring organic material to the soil and rotating crops like legumes and vegetable that adjust nitrogen.
These changes require farmers to pay close attention to their land and crops instead of the current model which is planting cash crops at the highest return possible.
Huge monocultures are too difficult to manage in a natural way and likely damage biodiversity. Diversity will be the key; using heritage crops like older strains and a larger variety of grains than the few current types used presently provide substantial benefits.
Benefits includes a natural resistance to certain pests, diseases, and conditions. The downside is potentially lower yields but the upside is a higher level of nutrients and lower impact on the planet.
Permaculture and Urban Farming
Urban farming, permaculture, and the smart use of agricultural technology will also aid in supplying more food while lessening the negative environmental impact of farming.
Biodynamics require a renewed vigor in understanding plant relationships, reusing waste products, and incorporating a spiritual dynamic like using lunar calendars when planting and harvesting.
Urban farming delivers fresh produce to heavily compressed populations. It eliminates the nutrient loss and greenhouse gas emissions that come with transporting it from far distances.
As it stands now urban farming produces roughly twenty percent of the world’s food. If more cities embrace this method of production it could go a long way to reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
Technology and Innovation in Food Production
Innovation and technology also provide a plethora of options to better manage, protect, and increase food production to both meet future needs and safeguard the planet.
One major way this is done currently is with remote temperature monitoring of stored grain. The sensors in the grain bin cables alert farmers to any abnormalities in their stored grain and allow them to make adjustments quickly so potential loss is minimal if at all. This eliminates unnecessary waste and allows farmers to wait until the market shows need to sell their grains.
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Additional technologies that have increased productivity and allowed for less waste on smallholdings and industrial farms are robots and drones that deliver targeted pesticides and find diseased and damaged crops before they can infect or negatively impact others around them.
There are several pieces of tech that allow farmers to use real-time monitoring equipment that alert them to various aspects of the farming process. They include when and where to apply water, fertilizers, and pesticides, instead of the wasteful practice of blanket spraying.
Beyond this, vertical farming is also catching on – the method of stacking crops. It saves space and utilizes energy and water more efficiently. In addition, our new-found capabilities to control air, light, temperature and other environmental factors, open new opportunities for farming. Underground farming is opening up to more than just mushrooms.
What’s the Takeaway?
Intensive farming techniques and the reliance on artificial fertilizers did not happen overnight. It took decades. Along the way, many of these methods revolutionized agriculture and allowed economic and population growth.
However, we now have lots of scientific evidence that forecasts trouble if we continue on the same path. We risk uncontrollable climate change, and pollution to our air and water. We also risk the extinction of species critical to human life, and the annihilation of our soils.
Many reading this might be thinking, don’t industrial farms produce most of the world’s food?
No, they don’t.
There are over 570 million farms globally. Of those, 90% are run by a family or an individual and rely on family labor. In fact, these family-owned and operated farms produce roughly 80% of the world’s food. So, small and medium farmers are the key to this revolution.
It’s okay to fear change, fear is one of the most basic and understandable human emotions.
But what we are afraid of and what we should be afraid of are two different things.
Agriculture will never lose its footing in the world. Food is essential to the survival of humans. Farmers will always be necessary. But, we need to make sure future food production doesn’t lead to catastrophic consequences.
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