Feeding the world sustainably

The world’s population is estimated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Feeding that many people in a sustainable way will be a significant challenge for global agricultural production.

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And population volume is not the only challenge. Rising incomes and changes in dietary preferences towards proteins and fruits will put further pressure on food producers. Already today nearly 10 per cent of the world’s population face food security challenges..

“The agriculture sector already uses 40 per cent of the world’s habitable land, 70 per cent of its fresh water and emits 30 per cent of the total greenhouse gases … The challenge is to produce sufficient food to feed the growing population whilst reducing total emissions.”

The agriculture sector already uses 40 per cent of the world’s habitable land, 70 per cent of its fresh water and emits 30 per cent of the total greenhouse gases (GHG), according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FOA).

The expansion in food production over the past three decades to sustain the current population was achieved by expanding irrigated land, converting forest to agriculture, adopting new technologies, increasing mechanisation, using genetically modified seeds and increased use of fertiliser and pesticides.

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This has resulted in plentiful production but has come at a huge and unsustainable environmental cost to the planet. Unlike other sectors, agriculture is both a victim of and a contributor to climate change.

Environmental impacts

Climate change is causing a rise in temperatures and the frequency of droughts and unseasonal floods, which threaten crop productivity and heighten the risk of crop failure. The US Department of Agriculture estimates crop yield is diminishing by 2.5 per cent each decade due to climate change.

Many countries pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 at the latest COP26 meeting in Glasgow.

Agriculture contributes almost 45 per cent of methane emissions, 80 per cent of nitrous oxide emissions and about 30 per cent of total GHG emissions. Emissions are highly concentrated in methane from livestock, manure management and rice farming.

Nitrous oxide emissions come primarily from fertiliser usage. The World Resources Institute estimates global agri-emissions will increase to 15 billion tonnes by 2050 from the current level of 10.7 billion tonnes unless systems change.

The challenge is to produce sufficient food to feed the growing population whilst reducing total emissions. Some estimates forecast another 2 billion people will be added to the global population by 2050 with Africa and Asia accounting for 83 per cent of total growth.

That suggests food demand will increase on 2010 levels by as much as 60 per cent by 2050. Reducing emissions from the agriculture sector will be tough compared to other sectors as we need to ensure food security, biodiversity and the viability of farming communities.

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Therefore, a gradual transformation is required. Some changes which will help include reducing food wastage, considering what we eat and applying new farming techniques.

Agriculture is also a major cause for water pollution through leaching of nitrogen and phosphate into the water system. Animal-based agricultural production has a higher water footprint to other forms of farming and irrigation methods can also affect water efficiencies.

Feeding the world sustainably

The world has less than 10 years to meet the 2030 UN agenda for Sustainable Development. This will be aided by reducing wastage, shifting diet from animal-based to plant based, agricultural intensification, building carbon sinks and adopting new technologies.

On food waste, nearly 1.3 billion tonnes or a third of total food production gets wasted at different stages of the supply chain, according to the UN’s FAO.

Wastage happens at every stage of the food supply chains. In developed nations, much of the wastage happens at the consumption level while food losses in developing countries tend to occur at the production and post-harvest stages.

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Food wastage also adds to the carbon footprint. According to the World Resource Institute reducing food waste by 25 per cent by 2050 could narrow the food gap by 12 per cent and reduce emissions by 15 per cent.

Shifting from animal to plant protein

Given the significant contribution of livestock to global emissions and the high quantities of water required to produce meat, a shift from ruminant protein to less resource-intensive plant protein should be taken seriously as a strategy to mitigate emissions.

Beef production is ten times more carbon intensive than poultry and 30 times more carbon intensive than plant protein. Some thought needs to be given using consistent units of measure.

Meat consumption is related with income growth – therefore as incomes grow in emerging countries demand for meat will increase. There has also been a shift from red meat (beef and lamb) to white meat (poultry). Poultry has a more favourable feed-to-meat conversion, a shorter production cycle, and is normally cheaper than red meats.

Crop intensification

Growth in food production in the past 30 years was achieved by increasing yields, increasing area and increasing cropping intensity, according to the FAO. More than 70 per cent of the increase came from yield enhancement and 12 per cent from cropping intensity and the rest from an increase in arable land.

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The World Resource Institute estimates an additional 500 million hectares of land will be required on 2010 levels by 2050 to feed the world’s population. Such expansion is simply not possible, so we must seek to augment crop intensity and productivity gains.

Using more fertiliser is not an option due to its environmental impacts. Other resources like water and soil are also becoming scarce, so the best way is to increase resource efficiency.

That means producing more food per hectare and per litre of water. More precise use of fertiliser is required so that a larger proportion of it is absorbed by the plants and less filters through the soils and pollutes waterways.

To improve crop yields we must understand the factors which impact yields, recognise the factors which are limiting yield and apply a solution or mitigation in a timely manner.

Often a lack of timely data or lack of knowledge means crop yields are well below their potential. These factors can be overcome through investment in measuring and recording equipment, accessing data and information and education.

Adopting technology across stages of the supply chain:

The world needs a technological revolution in the agriculture sector to help reduce environmental impacts. The FAO projects US$83 billion of annual investment in agriculture is required in developing countries. Some areas of focus may include:

*Vertical farming: to counter land constraints in urban cities and places where land is not suitable for farming. Vertical farms use less land and reduce water requirements by ~60-70 per cent compared with traditional farms.

*Robots and drones: can help counter labour shortages. While use of robotics is in its initial phase, agbots are being used to harvest fruit, milk cows and plough fields as well as weeding, planting and irrigation. Drones can also perform tasks throughout the crop cycle including pollination.

*Artificial Intelligence: is already being used. Data collection for different variables plays an important role in applying fertilisers, selecting seeds and irrigation based on soil analysis. Sensors can collect these data and save in the cloud. This can be potentially accessed by a variety of users including authorities monitoring resource use.

*Blockchain: is used for food safety and authenticity in the agriculture sector by tracking the food from field to fork. It not only brings transparency to opaque agriculture supply chains but could be utilised to provide better price signals to farmers.

*Aquaculture: now produces about half the total seafood consumed globally. Fish are farmed both on land (freshwater species) and within our oceans (marine farming) in a sustainable way. It is Australia’s fastest-growing primary industry accounting for 34 per cent of total value of seafood produced.

There are immense opportunities in the agriculture sector for investment to both increase food production and produce food in a more sustainable way.

Soni Kumari is a Commodity Strategist, Susan Kilsby is an Agriculture Economist and Daniel Hynes is a Senior Commodities Strategist at ANZ.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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