Efficient farming can feed 3 billion more people worldwide, says study

Targeted efforts to make food systems more efficient can also reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture

 
By Rajit Sengupta
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Nearly half of the potential gains of yield increase are in Africa, says the report (Source: c2.staticflickr)

Basic calorie need of 3 billion extra people can be met if food systems are made more efficient through targeted efforts, suggests a new report. What’s more, the targeted efforts will also help reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture.

The report by researchers from the University of Minnesota, and published in the peer reviewed journal, Science, suggests the biggest opportunities for boosting food production lies in Africa. It says India, along with China, the US, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan and European nations, need to take initiatives to make agriculture sustainable.

“Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food,” said the study’s lead author Paul West. “By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment,” he adds in a statement.

To be able to feed more people without increasing carbon footprints, the report suggests increasing the yields on existing farmland, growing crops with less nutrients and water, feeding fewer crops to animals as fodder, and cutting food waste.

Produce more food on existing land: Reducing 50 per cent of the yield gap—difference between potential and actual crop yield—in regions with the widest gaps could feed an additional 850 million people. Nearly half of the potential gains are in Africa, with most of the rest represented by Asia and eastern Europe.

Grow crops more efficiently: Improving the efficiency with which nutrients and water are used to grow crops can reduce climate impacts. Agriculture is responsible for 20 to 35 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The study found that the biggest opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas production are in Brazil and Indonesia for deforestation; China and India for rice production; and China, India and the United States for crop fertilisation.

China, India and the US—and three crops, rice, wheat and corn—are the biggest sources of excess nutrient use worldwide, so they offer the greatest opportunity for improvement.

With respect to water, rice and wheat are the crops that create the most demand for irrigation worldwide, and India, Pakistan, China and the US account for the bulk of irrigation water use in water-limited areas. Boosting crop water use efficiency, the researchers found, could reduce water demand 8 to 15 per cent without compromising food production.

Efficient use of crops: The third major category of opportunities relate to making more crop calories available for human consumption by shifting crops from livestock to humans and reducing food wastage. The report says the crop calories currently fed to animals are sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people. The study noted that the US, China and western Europe account for the bulk of this “diet gap”, with corn the main crop being diverted to animal feed. In addition, 30 to 50 per cent of food is wasted worldwide, which can be checked through efficient distribution mechanisms.

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