FEEDING a growing population and improving the global environment may seem to be at cross purposes, but historically speaking, agricultural innovations have led to both increased production and improved sustainability.
According to recent university research, when it comes to climate change and land use, agriculture isn't necessarily the bad actor some may portray it to be.
While climate change is one of the more controversial public policy topics in the U.S., the fact that the climate is changing is fairly settled science, even if why the climate is changing is still a wildly raging debate.
Greenhouse gas emissions, including those generated by the agriculture industry, are among the factors at the heart of that debate.
According to University of Kentucky plant pathologist Paul Vincelli, however, greenhouse gas emissions attributable to agriculture have stayed flat since 1990 despite rapidly increasing production of major food crops and livestock products. It is that increase in production, in fact, that has resulted in the industry's reduced impact on the global climate.
"In the past 50 years, when measurements have been taken, it has been shown that the carbon footprint per unit of agricultural production has gone down substantially," he said. "The intensification that we've experienced has actually, on a per unit of production basis, resulted in less of an impact on climate change."
Vincelli said that is a very positive message that doesn't often get disseminated to the general public. The dramatic yield increases seen in the developed world have improved the industry's overall carbon footprint.
In the developing world, on the other hand, limited access to modern technology and production practices means that crop yields are often much lower than in the developed world, meaning additional cultivation and potentially three times the carbon footprint.
"Sure, there is a carbon footprint to agricultural production, and we recognize that and want to make it better," Vincelli said. "Growers are always interested in improving their environmental impact as well as their bottom line."
He described "sustainable intensification," a concept championed by environmentalists such as Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund.
The idea behind sustainable intensification is simple enough: Produce more food with the same or fewer resources.
During a presentation to members of the American Feed Industry Assn. earlier this year, Clay explained that the challenge for the next 40 years is to produce as much food as has been produced in the last 8,000 years, but to do so on the same amount of land using the same or fewer resources.
Clay said intensification makes much more sense, environmentally speaking, than embracing "agricultural sprawl." Consumers in the developed world, however, have increasingly balked at increased concentration in agriculture, particularly in the food animal production sector.
Brazil is an interesting case study on this front. While generally considered a developed economy, Brazil's agriculture sector, in many ways, is still on the margin between the developed and developing world. Infrastructure in the country, for example, is decades behind that in the U.S., although it's improving far more rapidly.
A new Climate Policy Initiative study released Dec. 2 argued that Brazil must do a better job of managing land use changes in the country by encouraging increased productivity, as has been the case in the U.S.
Currently, Brazilian producers exhibit tremendous regional variation in terms of productivity, much of which the report attributes to non-geographical factors such as access to finances, technology, cooperatives and infrastructure (Figure 1).
For example, lack of credit availability is accountable for roughly one-fifth of the regional variation in productivity, with 75% of large-scale and only 20% of small-scale producers accessing credit.
In the U.S., on the other hand, producers have ready access to production credit, as well as to technologies such as seed and precision farming equipment that allow them to optimize production per unit of land.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, the average annual rate of global agriculture growth accelerated over the past 20 years after two decades of slowing growth. Since 1990, the rate of growth in agricultural resources slowed, and improvements in productivity now account for more than three-quarters of the total growth in global agricultural output (Figure 2).
Feeding more with less
The latest research on global population trends suggests that the world will need 70% more food on a caloric basis in order to feed an estimated global population of 9.6 billion in 2050.
Released by the World Resources Institute (WRI), along with the U.N. Development Program, U.N. Environment Program and World Bank, the report concludes that it is possible to close the "food gap" by improving the way people produce and consume food.
"Over the next several decades, the world faces a grand challenge — and opportunity — at the intersection of food security, development and the environment," WRI president Andrew Steer said. "To meet human needs, we must close the gap between the food we will need and the food available today, but we must do so in a way that creates opportunities for the rural poor, limits clearing of forests and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture."
The sustainable intensification Clay described is at the heart of the U.N. report's findings, which note that boosting crop and livestock productivity on existing agricultural land is critical to saving forests and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
WRI found that improving production practices and productivity in the livestock sector will be critical, with increasing demand for pastureland accounting for more than half of all agricultural expansion since the 1960s and beef consumption projected to grow 80% between 2006 and 2050. The report calls for producers to improve pasture productivity by using rotational grazing, improving livestock health care and integrating shade trees and nitrogen-fixing shrubbery into pasture systems.
In the crop sector, improving soil and water management is a must, in addition to closing the yield gap between many farms' current yields and the land's yield potential. Bringing the most inefficient farms up to standard efficiency levels will help close that gap while improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the developing world, WRI concluded.
"As agriculture is a major economic sector in many developing countries, supporting farms to close the identified gap between existing and potential yields represents a huge opportunity to advance inclusive and sustainable development," U.N. Development Program administrator Helen Clark said. "A 'leave no farmer behind' approach is needed."