Green revolution needed to feed the world, says UN

Posted by Laura Grant on February 19, 2009
Posted in Food

Changing the ways in which food is produced, handled and disposed of across the globe – from farm to store and from fridge to landfill – can both feed the world’s rising population and help the environment, a new United Nations Environment Programme study has found.

More than half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain, says the report entitled “The Environmental Food crises: Environment’s role in averting future food crises”. The report was released this week at a UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum meeting in Nairobi.

“There is evidence within the report that the world could feed the entire projected population growth alone by becoming more efficient while also ensuring the survival of wild animals, birds and fish on this planet,” says Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary-general and UNEP executive director.

The UNEP report lists some sobering stats about food:

  • Food losses and waste in the United States are estimated to be as high as 50 percent. Up to a quarter of all fresh fruits and vegetables in the US is lost between the field and the table.
  • In Australia food waste makes up about half of landfill.
  • Almost a third of all food purchased in the United Kingdom every year is not eaten.
  • In Africa, the total amount of fish lost through discards, post-harvest loss and spoilage may be around 30 percent of landings.
  • In developing countries, food losses in the field between planting and harvesting could be as high as 40 percent of the potential harvest because of pests and pathogens.
  • A third of the world’s cereals are being used as animal feed and this will rise to 50 per cent by 2050.
  • An estimated 30 million tonnes of fish are discarded at sea annually.

The report shows that many of the factors blamed for the current food crisis – drought, biofuels, high oil prices, low grain stocks and especially speculation in food stocks may worsen substantially in the coming decades.

Add to that climate change and the fact that the world’s population is expected to grow to over 9-billion people by 2050, from about 6.7-billion at present, and trouble lies ahead.

“We need a Green revolution in a Green Economy but one with a capital G”, says Steiner.

“We need to deal with not only the way the world produces food but the way it is distributed, sold and consumed, and we need a revolution that can boost yields by working with rather than against nature.”

Simply ratcheting up the fertiliser and pesticide-led production methods of the 20th century is not the answer, says Steiner.

“It will increasingly undermine the critical natural inputs and nature-based services for agriculture such as healthy and productive soils, the water and nutrient recycling of forests, and pollinators such as bees and bats.”

The report says that increased use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides, increased water use and cutting down of forests will result in massive decline in biodiversity. Already, nearly 80 percent of all endangered species are threatened because of agricultural expansion, and Europe has lost more than 50 percent of its farmland birds during the past 25 years of intensification of European farmlands.

Organic agriculture is highlighted as holding promise. A 2008 UN study of small-scale African farms found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming and also found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought, says the report.

Organic agriculture is predicted to continue to grow, despite the economic crisis, says UNEP. Sales of certified organic produce could reach close to $70 billion in 2012, up from $23 billion in 2002.

Some of the findings in the report are:

  • Food prices may increase by 30-50 percent within decades.
  • Continuing to feed cereals to growing numbers of livestock will aggravate poverty and environmental degradation.
  • The removal of agricultural subsidies and the promotion of second generation biofuels based on wastes rather than on primary crops could reduce pressure on fertile lands and critical ecosystems such as forests.
  • The amount of fish currently discarded at sea could sustain a 50 percent increase in fish farming and aquaculture production, which is needed to maintain per capita fish consumption at current levels by 2050 without increasing pressure on an already stressed marine environment.
  • Up to 25 percent of the world’s food production may become lost due to ‘environmental breakdowns’ by 2050 unless action is taken.
  • Water scarcity may reduce crop yields by up to 12 percent and climate change may accelerate insects, diseases and weeds, reducing yields by another 2-6 percent worldwide.
  • Continuing land degradation, particularly in Africa, may reduce yields by another 1-8 percent.
  • Croplands may be swallowed up by urban sprawl, biofuels, cotton and land degradation by 8-20 percent by 2050.
  • In Sub-Saharan Africa, population growth is projected to increase from the current 770-million to over 1.7-billion in less than 40 years, and climate change, land degradation, water scarcity and conflicts mean that unless a major economic, agricultural and investment boom takes place, the situation may become very serious indeed.

“The Environmental Food Crises” report offers seven major recommendations:

  1. To decrease the risk of highly volatile food prices, price regulation should be created to buffer the tight markets of food commodities and the subsequent risks of speculation in markets.
  2. Encourage the removal of subsidies for first-generation (food crop-based) biofuels and promote environmentally sustainable higher-generation biofuels (based on waste) that do not compete for cropland and water resources, but also do not compete with animal feed.
  3. Reallocate cereals and food fish used in animal feed and develop alternatives to use in animal feed by developing alternative feeds based on new technology, waste and discards.
  4. Support farmers in developing diversifed and resilient eco-agriculture systems.
  5. Increase trade and market access by improving infrastructure, reducing trade barriers, enhancing government subsidies and safety nets, and reducing armed conflict and corruption
  6. Limit global warming
  7. Raise awareness of the pressures of increasing population growth and consumption patterns on ecosystems

Source: UNEP

Image: by JBloom, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

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