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A BIG conversation starts on ways to increase food supplies while protecting environments and eradicating hunger

An animated 3-minute video clip by the University of Minnesota’s Institute for the Environment.

Justin Gillis has published an interesting piece this week in the Green Blog of the New York Times on a big study just published in Nature by Jon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. A companion piece summarizing the analysis in lay terms will run in the November issue of Scientific American.

The topic? How we’re going to feed our growing world.

The answer? By creating a bigger conversation and bringing everyone to the table: those most concerned with raising food production, those most concerned with protecting the environment and those most concerned with ensuring everyone has enough to eat.

Can we possibly meet this tall order to meet a triple  bottom line: raise yields, save ecologies and eradicate hunger?

Jon Foley and his colleagues at Minnesota think so. And that can-do optimism is refreshing coming from the scientific community, which is more apt to issue dire warnings of the widening food gap than come up with whole solutions.

Like others, Foley’s group thinks we probably can (with difficulty) manage to double food production over the coming decades. What’s heartening about his group’s analysis is that it lays out a strong case for tackling increasing agricultural yields, protecting agricultural environments and feeding hungry people all at the same time.

‘Many elements of the new paper will be familiar to readers who follow these issues. Yet it is interesting to see these building blocks of a smarter food system spelled out in one paper, with hard numbers attached.

‘For starters, the group argues that the conversion of forests and grasslands to agricultural use needs to stop now; the environmental damage we are doing chopping down the Amazon far exceeds the small gain in food production, it says.

‘Next, the paper contends that increases in food supply need to come from existing farmland by a process of intensified production in regions where yields are low: northeastern India, Eastern Europe, parts of South America and large parts of Africa being good examples.

‘If yields in these regions could be brought to within 75 percent of their known potential using modern farming methods, including fertilizer and irrigation, total global supply of major foodstuffs would expand by 28 percent, the paper found. If yields were brought to 95 percent of their potential, close to those achieved in rich countries, the supply increase would be a whopping 58 percent. . . .

‘Another important strategy laid out in the paper is to improve the efficiency of agriculture in places where yields are already high. If farmers in Africa need more fertilizer, farmers in the United States need less.

‘The paper essentially argues that high yields can be attained with fewer chemicals and less water, which would not only cut pollution but in some cases also cut costs for farmers. . . .

‘The paper studiously avoids taking sides in the ideological wars over the food system. It does not adopt the left-leaning argument that organic production is the answer to the world’s food issues, nor the rightward view that markets will solve all problems.

‘It does argue for pulling as many good ideas as possible from emerging food movements into the conventional system—but only if they serve the three goals of increasing supply, reducing environmental damage and improving food security. . . .’

Conclusions of the Minnesota paper in Nature this week resemble those of a paper published in Science in 2010 titled Smart investments in sustainable food production: Revisiting mixed crop-livestock systems. The Science paper synthesized  results of a study conducted by several research institutions working in a Systemwide Livestock Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Lead author of the Science paper, Mario Herrero, of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), says that his group came to similar conclusions as Foley’s:

We should focus on increasing agricultural efficiencies, we should define the limits to agricultural intensification on high-potential lands, and we should help close the yield gaps on the underperforming more extensive mixed crop-and-livestock agricultural systems.

Herrero, though, goes further to argue explicitly for greater focus on the ‘mixed’ crop-and-livestock systems that remain the mainstay of smallholder farming worldwide. As he writes in his paper, ‘Mixed systems enable the farmer to integrate different enterprises on the farm . . . . The synergies between cropping and livestock husbandry offer many opportunities for the sustainably increasing production by raising productivity and increasing resource use efficiency both for households and regions. This, in turn, can increase incomes and secure availability and access to food for people while maintaining environmental services.’

Regarding the future of food production in the breadbaskets and ricebowls of the world, he writes: ‘The pressures currently acting on the so-called “high-potential,” intensively farmed lands of developing countries are large enough to slow and possibly end the substantial increases in growth rates of crop production seen during recent decades. For example, diminishing water resources are becoming a huge constraint to rice and wheat production in South Asia. . . . Similar caps on natural resources in the East African highlands and other high-potential agricultural areas of Africa are appearing in the form of infertile soils, degraded lands, depleted water sources, carbon losses, shrinking farm sizes, and decreasing farm productivity. Recent research suggests that some of these areas may not respond to increased fertilizer inputs and will need a closer integration of livestock and crop production to improve productivity.’

On the more ‘extensive’ agricultural frontier, Herrero says ‘Significant contributions to future food security could be made in the more extensive mixed crop-livestock systems used in developing countries, where there is less pressure on the land and the crop productivity is far from optimal. For example, yields of dryland crops such as sorghum, millet, groundnut, and cowpea could easily be increased by a factor of three with appropriate land preparation, timing of planting, and use of fertilizers and pesticides. . . . Investing in extensive mixed systems will require considerable changes in public investments. Instead of allocating most resources to highly populated areas or those with high agricultural potential, developing-country governments will have to begin investing in infrastructure and services for more extensive areas, many of which are likely to be affected by climate change in the future.’

Herrero concludes: ‘[T]o reduce poverty while increasing food supplies and maintaining functional ecosystems will require well-regulated and differential growth in crop and livestock production. It will require public and private investments in the more-extensive mixed agricultural systems neglected in the past. It will require higher public and donor funding for research and development in the livestock sector, which historically has been lower than those for food crops, often by a factor of 10 or more. It will require differentiated and nuanced policies able to assess the trade-offs between agro-ecosystem services and human well-being. And it will require that governments and donors, together with scientists and other stakeholders, precisely target technological, investment, and policy options to suit different farming systems and regions. . . .’

Read the whole Herrero paper in ScienceSmart investments in sustainable food production: Revisiting mixed crop-livestock systems, 12 Feb 2010, and a previous ILRI News Blog story about the Science paper: New investments in agriculture likely to fail without sharp focus on small-scale ‘mixed’ farmers, 12 Feb 2010.

Read the whole news article on Foley’s Nature paper at the Green Blog of the New York Times: Deep thinking about the future of food, 12 Oct 2011.

Read the Foley paper in Nature: Solutions for a cultivated planet, 12 Oct 2011.

Read the Foley article in Scientific American: Can we feed the world and sustain the planet? 12 Oct 2011.

3 thoughts on “A BIG conversation starts on ways to increase food supplies while protecting environments and eradicating hunger

  1. Green Oil grows on the Pastures of the Tropics
    Vegetable Protein and Liquid Bio-Fuels from Crescentia alata

    Prices for mineral oil are rising steadily, because the demand is higher than the offer. Bio-fuels as ethanol and vegetable oil can replace mineral oil and can control oil prices. A study of the SNV compares the 6 following potential bio-fuel producers of the tropics: Sugar cane, Oilpalm, Yuca (Casava, Maniok), Crescentia alata, Jatropha curcas, and Castor. This study shows that Crescentia alata is the only recommendable and by far the best bio-fuel production potential of the tropics.
    The Jicaro fruit-tree (Crescentia alata) is probably the most useful plant of all. It is the most multi-purposed useful plant with the highest yield and profitability of all. The 7 separated products of Crescentia alata can cover the basic requirements of the human beings: Protein-rich food, clean drinking water, protein-rich fodder, ethanol as gasoline, vegetable oil as salad oil or bio-diesel or kerosene, fire-wood for heat and electricity, to make the fruit-processing factories energy independent.
    Crescentia meets all the 18 conditions for Bio-fuels production and does not use the soil exclusively.
    Crescentia grows on all tropical pastures. Its extra long tap-root brings up nutrients out of large quantities of profound soil.
    Crescentia produces its fruits nearly without interruption throughout the year for more than 100 years without fertilizers and irrigation, without agro-chemicals and care.
    Crescentia can produce per hectare of pastures per year 11 tons oil-cake
    + 8.300 litres ethanol + 3.000 litres vegetable oil (bio-diesel) + 11 tons dry fruit pulp + 135 tons clean water. Investment profitability may reach about 25 % per year.
    This profitable fruit production could replace mineral oil at competitive prices on 450 million hectares = about 1/3 of all tropical pastures.
    The tropical cattle farmers can double the results of their cattle breeding under these fruit-trees by feeding the fruit pulp. The JICARO S.A. wants to cooperate with a co-investor, who is active in the production and/or distribution of food, or liquid bio-fuels, or solid bio-fuels (pellets) or tropical feed, or quantities of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions (power plants).

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