Nearly 10% of the world’s 8 billion people are already undernourished, 3 billion lack healthy diets, and the land and water resources that farmers rely on are stressed to “a point a break “. And by 2050, there will be 2 billion more mouths to feed, warns a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
So far, farmers have been able to increase agricultural productivity by irrigating more land and applying higher doses of fertilizers and pesticides. But the report says these practices are unsustainable: they have eroded and degraded soils while polluting and depleting water supplies and shrinking the world’s forests. The FAO report discusses some important impacts of climate change, such as changes in rainfall patterns, suitability of land for certain crops, spread of insects and other pests, and shorter growing seasons in regions affected by more intense droughts. While not the only source of obstacles facing global agriculture, the report makes it clear that climate change is further straining agricultural systems and amplifying global challenges to food production.
The report also gives hope that the problems can be solved: water degradation can be reversed by turning to smart planning and coordination of sustainable agricultural practices and by deploying innovative new technologies. More sustainable agriculture can also help tackle climate change: for example, the report notes that wiser land use can help sequester some of the greenhouse gases currently emitted by agricultural activities.
Drastic climate changes will force regions to adjust the crops they grow. For example, the report predicts that much of the grain production will likely have to move north to Canada and northern Eurasia. Brazil and North Africa may find it more difficult to grow coffee, but it may become easier in East Africa. A changing climate “may provide opportunities for multiple rainfed crops, especially in tropical and subtropical regions.” And for areas “where the climate becomes marginal for current staple and niche crops, there are alternative options of annual and perennial tree crops, livestock, and soil and water management.”
The report recommends seed and germplasm exchanges globally and between regions, as well as investments to develop crops that can withstand changes in temperature, salinity, wind and evaporation.
The changes won’t be easy, the report says, but they may be necessary to avert widespread starvation and other disasters.
Extensive land and water degradation
Over the past 20 years, the world’s population has increased by more than 25%, from just over 6 billion to almost 8 billion people. The area of land used to grow crops only increased by 4% during this period, as farmers were able to meet the growing demand for food by dramatically increasing productivity per acre of farmland. They have done this, for example, by increasing the use of diesel-fueled machinery, fertilizers and pesticides.
But these practices have a price. “Human-induced degradation affects 34% (1,660 million hectares) of agricultural land, reports the FAO. “Treatment of soils with inorganic fertilizers to increase or maintain yields has had significant adverse effects on soil health and contributed to runoff and drainage-induced freshwater pollution.”
This degradation is particularly important on irrigated agricultural land. Irrigation has been essential in meeting food demand as it produces two to three times more food per acre than rainfed agricultural land. But irrigation also increases the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides that can contaminate soil and groundwater.
The FAO also reports that globally, agriculture accounts for 72% of all surface and groundwater withdrawals, mostly for irrigation, depleting groundwater aquifers in many regions. Global groundwater withdrawals for irrigated agriculture have increased by about 20% in the last decade alone.
Similarly, the quality of 13% of the world’s soils, including 34% of agricultural land, has been degraded. This degradation has been caused by factors such as excessive use of fertilizers, overgrazing of livestock causing soil compaction and erosion, deforestation and reduced water availability.
Trends in deforestation offer a relatively bright spot in the FAO report. Global forest area has declined by about 1% (47 million hectares) over the past decade, but this is a significant improvement from the decline of almost 2% (78 million hectares ) in the 1990s. And at the November 2021 international climate negotiations in Glasgow, 141 countries, covering 91% of the world’s forest area, agreed to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. It remains to be seen, of course, how many will meet these commitments.
Climate change is making food system breakdowns worse
Climate change is exacerbating farmers’ challenges by making weather more extreme and less reliable. Extreme heat can stress crops and farm workers while increasing soil water evaporation and plant transpiration, thereby amplifying agricultural water demand. Here too, there is not all bad news: agricultural productivity is expected to increase in currently relatively cold regions, but decrease in hotter and drier regions, especially as climate change exacerbates droughts.
As with others, farmers will need to adapt to climate change, and these adaptations can be costly. For example, as the primary or sole producer of many of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts, California effectively acts as America’s garden. But climate change is exacerbating droughts and water shortages in the state, and farmers are struggling to adapt. About 80% of all almonds in the world are grown in California, generating $6 billion in annual revenue, but almonds are a very water-intensive crop. As a result, some farmers have been forced to destroy their lucrative almond orchards. It’s a stark reminder that ‘adapting’ may seem easy on paper, but in practice it can sometimes be painful and costly.
Farmers and planners will have to adapt
Adaptation will nevertheless be necessary in the face of a projected 50% increase in food demand by 2050 (including a doubling in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa), significant degradation of land quality and water and climate change. The FAO report recommends four areas for action to continue meeting growing global food demand.
- First of all, adopting inclusive land and water governance through improved land use planning to guide land and water allocation and promote sustainable resource management.
- Second, implementing integrated solutions at scale, for example helping farmers to use available resources more efficiently while minimizing associated negative environmental impacts and also building resilience to climate change.
- Third, adopting innovative technologies and management such as remote sensing services; open access to data and information on crops, natural resources and climatic conditions; and improve rainwater catchment and increase soil moisture retention.
- Fourth, investing in the long-term sustainable management of land, soil and water; in the restoration of degraded ecosystems; and in data and information management for farmers.
Fortunately, sustainable agricultural practices can also play a dual role as climate solutions. The FAO reports that 31% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agri-food systems. Sustainable agricultural practices such as regenerative agriculture can require fewer diesel fueled machinery and less reliance on soil and water polluting pesticides while increasing the carbon stored in cultivated soils.
Solving these multiple problems will require planning and coordination, the FAO writes in the report, and “data collection needs to be improved”. Again, on the plus side: the technology to improve data collection already exists, and advances in agricultural research have also put other solutions within reach. What is needed now is for policy makers and planners to coordinate work with farmers to adopt more sustainable practices and adapt faster to climate change. So, while the food system is currently at a “breaking point”, these more sustainable solutions are all within reach.