Rethinking agricultural systems: first impressions from a conference

By Joern Fischer

The (UK) Association of Applied Biologists, together with the British Ecological Society, is currently holding a two-day conference entitled “Rethinking Agricultural Systems” (see also I’ll be attending the whole meeting and will be talking tomorrow.

Two of the highlights of this conference are taking place this morning: Jon Foley and Tim Benton are both giving plenary talks. Jon Foley leads the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Tim Benton is the UK Champion for Global Food Security. Both are among the most influential ecologists currently speaking and writing on the nexus of agriculture, food and biodiversity.

For now, I will summarise Jon’s talk – Tim’s will come later!

Jon presented an inspiring historical view of humanity, highlighting, first of all, that Homo sapiens was only a very minor species for most of its time as a species. This, however, changed, especially in the last century – Jon took us through some key statistics; a doubling of population, a sevenfold increase in economic activity; a tripling in food consumption … and all of that between 1960 and 2010. For the first time in history, Jon highlighted, “scarcity” is becoming a relevant constraint at a global scale: “we’re running out of planet” for all kinds of resources, including agricultural land.

Agriculture has been a key driver of landscape change around the world, dominating something like 40% of the terrestrial surface of our planet. Associated with that, water scarcity has increased – indeed, people consume as much as 50% of global freshwater resources, and most of that is accounted for by agriculture. The atmosphere, too, has suffered: while something like 60% of greenhouse gases come from fossil fuels, about 30% comes from the agricultural sector. Given this role of agriculture, avoiding deforestation, reducing methane emissions, and reducing nitrous oxide emissions (from excessive fertilizer use) are key strategies to combat climate changes.

Jon went on to highlight that food security was largely a political problem – with 1 billion people malnourished, despite there being enough food at a global scale, already. Ecologists, Jon argued, were essentially unable to address this issue. Yet, Jon argued there was a need to increase food production; largely because of the dietary transition we’re seeing in increasingly wealthy nations. Essentially, demand is projected to increase, like it or not – more meat, more dairy, more fatty and sugary foods. Jon thus saw two challenges: the current problem of feeding everyone, and even more so, the future challenge of feeding everyone, given a projected doubling of demand for food.

Regarding the current sustainability of agriculture, Jon showed that first of all, agricultural land is still expanding, albeit slowly (2% in 20 years). Yields, by contrast, have increased much more strongly, owing to the Green Revolution. It is thus yield increases per unit area, rather than a growing area, which has helped to increase global food production so far. Will this increase in productivity continue? Quite possibly not, according to recent analyses by Jon’s team. Doubling production, as it stands, does not look likely.

Current approaches, Jon argued, are not helping food security, are not keeping pace with demand, and are not environmentally sustainable. For this reason, we need a new suite of strategies. To double food production and halve environmental impact, Jon suggested we needed to:

  1. Stop deforestation (which largely benefits corporate agriculture, not the poor).
  2. Deliver more food on less land (i.e. close yield gaps, especially in five priority areas, one of which is Eastern Europe) – my understanding was that Jon would prioritize better nutrient application and irrigation issues a long way ahead of GMO crops. Agroecological methods were noted as the preferred method for intensification.
  3. One key part of this was to update inefficient technologies such as poorly designed irrigation systems (“evaporation devices”). More targeted nutrient application also would be very helpful – in many case, it would be possible to use a lot less fertilizer (including organic fertilizer), and still produce the same amount of food.
  4. Change diets, so that more food goes to people and less to animals and “machines” (biofuels); and
  5. Reduce waste.

Overall, this was a superbly presented talk, with a lot of important “food” for thought. Jon touched on everything from production, to politics to dietary change.

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