Global Policy Forum

Farming Needs 'Major Shift' as Food System Fails, UN Farming Agency Says

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s new report highlights that agricultural productivity increases have depleted agriculture’s natural resource base, adversely affecting future potential. Furthermore, the increase in food production has not decreased the number of undernourished people in the world, proving that the current system is already failing. As population growth will require a 70% increase in world agricultural productivity, more consideration needs to be given to alternatives such as eco-system based farming practices to create a more sustainable and effective system.

By Rudy Ruitenberg and Tony C. Dreibus

June 13, 2011

World farming needs a “major shift” to more sustainable practices as intensive crop production since the 1960s has degraded soils, depleted ground water and caused pest outbreaks, the United Nations said.

More farmers need to reduce ploughing and alternate cereals with soil-improving plants, and use an “ecosystem approach” based on natural systems to promote crop growth, save water and fight pests, the UN’s Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization said in a guide to policy makers published today.

The so-called Green Revolution that started in the 1950s and spread in the 1960s introduced more productive wheat, corn and rice varieties and relied on “high levels” of fertilizer and pesticides, the UN agency said. That boosted cereal yields and food production, saving an estimated 1 billion people from famine and jump-starting Asian economies, the FAO said.

“Those enormous gains in agricultural production and productivity were often accompanied by negative effects on agriculture’s natural resource base, so serious that they jeopardize its productive potential in the future,” the FAO said in the book on farming, “Save and Grow.”

Salt Build-Up

Negative effects include land degradation, salt build-up in irrigated areas, depletion of groundwater, pest resistance and pollution, according to the agency.

“It is also clear that the current food production and distribution systems are failing to feed the world,” the FAO said. “The number of undernourished people in 2010 was estimated at 925 million, higher than it was 40 years ago.”

The world population is forecast to climb to 9.2 billion in 2050 from an estimated 6.9 billion in 2010, requiring a 70 percent jump in world agricultural production, the FAO said. With “virtually no spare land” in parts of Asia and Africa, yield increases and more intensive cropping will be needed, the agency said.

Between 2015 and 2030, “an estimated 80 percent of the required food production increases will have to come from intensification in the form of yield increases and higher cropping intensities,” the FAO said.

About 70 percent of the area that is available to increase agricultural production, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, suffers from soil and terrain constraints, according to the FAO.

Water Needs

Ecosystem-based farming practices will “help to reduce crops’ water needs by 30 percent and the energy costs of production by up to 60 percent,” according to the FAO.

The use of agricultural commodities in the production of biofuels including ethanol and biodiesel will grow, the UN said. Food costs rose to a record in February this year, UN data show. Corn has gained 91 percent in the past year, wheat is up 66 percent in Chicago and rice has gained 35 percent.

“Changes in demand will drive the need for significant increases in production of all major food and feed crops,” according to the book. “The food price spike of 2008 and the surge in food prices to record levels early in 2011 portend rising and more frequent threats to world food security.”


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