By some assessments, the human population will require twice as much food in 2050 as we do now. Some have estimated that an area the size of South Africa or Canada would need to be planted to produce enough food to meet these needs. But a new study says that may not be the case.
According to the study, published in the journal Science, growing more food doesn’t always require more cropland -- just a change in the way we use resources. The authors looked at 17 of the most important crops to analyze specific strategies to meet the needs of an additional three billion people. It's not all about increasing growing efficiency either -- the study targets food waste and the amount of crops used to feed animals.
The study makes specific suggestions about a few key “leverage points” and Paul West, the study’s lead author, said in a press release that they are giving “funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.”
The majority of environmental effects of agriculture are concentrated in a few countries, driven by select commodities, the study says. Targeting efforts in these areas offers the greatest opportunity for building a sustainable global food system by decreasing greenhouse gas production, improving irrigation efficiency and reducing excess fertilizer use.
Increasing food production while decreasing environmental impact won’t be easy, the authors say. The study points to the idea of increasing yield in countries that are not at their maximum potential yield. Bringing low-performing countries up to just 50 percent of their full potential could help feed 850 million people. Increasing production while protecting the environment would entail reducing the amount of wasted resources, such as nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers. It would also require a reduction in the amount of water wasted. Cutting down on food waste is a must as well, since upwards of 30 to 50 percent of food is wasted.
Shockingly, the researchers also point out that we could increase the amount of food calories available by 70 percent if we diverted crops used to feed animals directly to feeding humans, enough to feed four billion people. The authors do recognize the cultural and political barriers to this route, but note that it could be used as a safety net in food production.
One of the main points of this study is that these changes could occur in a geographically limited area and focus on a small number of worst offenders. Three countries -- China, India and the United States -- are responsible for 64 to 66 percent of excess nutrient application and globally. Reducing food waste in these three countries alone could be enough to feed an additional 400 million people. At the same time, just three crops account for almost a third of excess nutrient application, while two crops, rice and wheat, account for the vast majority of water use.
Making food production more efficient can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing deforestation and nitrous oxide emissions from excess fertilizer and manure use, the study says. That’s not to mention the habitat saved by reducing the amount of land cleared for new agriculture.
The researchers conclude, “These leverage points in the global food system can help guide how nongovernmental organizations, foundations, governments, citizens’ groups, and businesses prioritize actions.”