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Hope for the Future of Food and Climate
By: Michael Lohuis, Ph.D.
Environmental Strategies for Agriculture
As each new year begins, it’s common to take stock of where we stand. In the arena of climate change, 2016 was noteworthy in many ways. For the third straight year, new global temperature records were set (including ocean temperatures) and the small group of scientists denying climate change continues to shrink. Food security and climate change are now topping the 10 biggest global challenges.
While the U.S. presidential election introduced more uncertainty into the country’s adaptation and mitigation plans, 2016 also showed that the cost of renewable energy continues to decline and investments are now double that of coal and gas-fired power generation. The COP22 climate change meetings signaled a pivot from years of negotiations (the Paris Agreement is now ratified by 111 countries representing three-fourths of global emissions) to a new phase of implementation including the launch of a 2050 Pathway Platform.
All told, the continually improving competitiveness of renewable energy and the growing public expectation for governments and corporations to act on climate change provide real sources of hope.
In the field of agriculture, 2016 provided a realization that modern farming can simultaneously meet growing food demands while being part of the solution to climate change.
Productivity and “Peak Farmland”
While it is clear that the world’s population is continuing to grow, it is growing at a decreasing rate. Despite growing affluence that leads to increasing per capita consumption, the annual increase in global food demand is expected to decrease to only 0.8% per year from 2030-2050, which is 60% of the rate from 2007-2030 . Astonishingly, for the first time in history and given certain assumptions, we could reach “peak land”; in other words, the food supply from existing farmland could surpass food demand. Not only would this help address food security challenges but also could eliminate indirect GHG emissions resulting from agricultural expansion.
Let me explain… almost half (4.3-5.5 billion tons CO2e) of greenhouse gases (GHG) from agriculture and forestry stems from CO2 released from the conversion of land from forests, wetlands, peatlands and pastures into cropland . This has been necessary to produce enough food for a rapidly growing population because food demand has continually outpaced the available food supply. However, if food demand could be met with existing farmland, the biggest source of ag-related GHG emissions could be eliminated and agriculture could become a climate change mitigation powerhouse. My hope is that the world’s demand for farmland peaks well before mid-century.
To achieve this goal, there are three challenges that need to be addressed:
Challenge #1: The impacts of climate change will provide additional headwinds to agricultural productivity. Most notably, limited water supplies will be under pressure from greater evaporation losses stemming from higher temperatures and cropping intensity. Second, for some crops such as maize and sorghum, productivity gains will be slower in a hotter climate, whereas other crops that are typically grown in more northern regions, e.g. wheat and barley, may benefit. Investments in public and private sector ag R&D are needed to develop crops and technologies that are better suited to a hotter climate with less reliable water supplies.
Challenge #2: Cropping intensification will need to be done sustainably using fewer inputs and emitting less GHG per unit of food produced while simultaneously improving soil health, water quality and biodiversity habitats within the agricultural landscape. Fortunately, the practices to accomplish this, such as advanced analytics, precision nutrient management, minimization of tillage and grazing/livestock management, are known and described in GHI’s 2016 Global Agricultural Productivity Report® (see below), but adoption needs to be accelerated. Industry and farmers are already playing a key role in scaling up adoption of these practices to tackle climate change and improve the environment.
Challenge #3: Society needs to reduce food waste and food loss. Today approximately one-third of the food produced is lost on the way to market or wasted by retailers or consumers. By reducing food waste and loss by half, we could reduce food production needs by one-sixth. Of course, part of this can be achieved by reduction in waste by retailers and consumers, which is particularly relevant in affluent societies. However, a potentially larger savings could be achieved, in both developed and developing countries, by avoiding pre-harvest food losses by minimizing losses due to weeds, insects and disease. Farmers plant, fertilize and protect crops for an expected harvest, but in-field losses mean smaller harvests and wasted inputs and labor. Modern farming methods such as biotech weed and insect control allows larger harvests without the need to expand farmland.
By addressing all three of these challenges aggressively, and optimizing the use of the best farmland, we could preserve existing forests and wetlands and even start to repurpose suboptimal farmland for ecosystem services such as carbon storage and water improvements or a return to nature. With wise decisions and increased use of productive and sustainable farming solutions, it is possible to fight climate change and eat sustainably too.
 Smith P., M. Bustamante, H. Ahammad, H. Clark, H. Dong, E. A. Elsiddig, H. Haberl, R. Harper, J. House, M. Jafari, O. Masera, C. Mbow, N. H. Ravindranath, C. W. Rice, C. Robledo Abad, A. Romanovskaya, F. Sperling, and F. Tubiello, 2014: Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU). In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. (pg. 816)