Written by Peter Bray

The Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) estimates that around one in eight people suffer from chronic hunger – that’s a staggering 842 million people around the globe. Whilst this number does mean a 17% reduction in hunger over the last twenty years,food security remains a serious concern.

The 1996 World Food Summit set out to halve the number of hungry people by 2015 – a target which seems desperately optimistic with just a year left to go. With the global population estimated to rise by between 2.3 and 3 Billion by 2050, is a global food crisis an inevitability?

In a paper published in Science this month, it is suggested that more than 3 billion people could be fed and environmental damage could be limited by improving the use of existing cropland.

Paul West of the University of Minnesota and his team identified the crops, regions and actions which have the best opportunities to improve global food security and environmental sustainability.

Their findings indicate that just a few regions and crops could have the greatest room for improvement, and efforts should be focused in five major areas:


  • Reducing greenhouse gases associated with agriculture. Most greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture occur in just a handful of countries. Indonesia and Brazil are accountable for over half of global tropical deforestation, a major contributing factor to increased atmospheric CO2. Limiting deforestation would lower CO2 emissions and protect some of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Most methane (CH4) emissions come from the production of rice, and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from fertiliser use were also limited to a few regions.


  • Reducing nutrient inputs. The addition of fertilisers to crops is often a necessary part of production, but excessive use causes a runoff of nutrients into freshwater and coastal systems. These elevated nutrient levels, known as eutrophication, can be highly damaging to aquatic ecosystems. For example, China, India and the United States are responsible for two thirds of excess nitrogen and phosphorous. By focusing on reducing fertiliser use in these three countries, large economic and environmental gains could be made.


  • Improving water use. Irrigation accounts for ninety percent of the water we use worldwide, and exploitation can cause deterioration of freshwater resources. By using improved irrigation techniques, particularly in areas of limited precipitation, up to 15% less water could be used to produce the same amount of food.


  • Reducing food waste. By limiting consumer waste of major food crops and meat in India, China and the United States, West et al. estimate 413 million more people could be fed per year. The wasting of meat is particularly costly; wasting 1kg of beef has 24 times the effect on available calories as wasting 1kg of wheat.


  • Limiting the ‘yield gap’. The difference between current and potential yield, or ‘yield gap’, means simply that some areas are not producing as much food as they could be. Increasing yield to just 50% of its potential in the lowest performing areas around the globe could provide food for 850 million people – more than the number the FAO currently identify as chronically hungry.


Additionally, the study found that as many as 4 Billion more people could be fed with crops grown for feeding livestock, highlighting an over-reliance on meat, particularly in the United States, China, Western Europe and Brazil.


The authors suggest that by following the leverage points outlined, governments, NGOs and other institutions can focus their efforts, protecting the environment and promoting global food security. The ideas outlined here seem simple, but the implementation of course, is unlikely to be so clear-cut.


You can read the full article if you have access, on the Science website here


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