How to feed the world without destroying the planet


Source: SciDev.Net

By 2050, there will be another two to three billion people on Earth, and the planet's population will consume twice as much food as now. For 50 years farmland has grown at the cost of natural habitat and biodiversity, and already more than two-thirds of agricultural land is either in use or protected.

As a result, we need to develop the technology to double the output of the 10–15 main calorie crops, particularly if we are alleviate the burden on developing countries of feeding a rapidly growing population, argues Jason Clay of the WWF in the journal Nature.

He makes eight strategic suggestions — described as 'food wedges' — for Africa, the continent that faces the greatest challenge of increasing food production.

Clay believes the responsible use of genetics is one of the keys. He suggests that mapping the genomes of staple food cropssuch as yams, plantains and cassava, andselecting useful genetic traits, can both increase production and improve drought tolerance, disease resistance and nutrient content.

Improving agricultural inputs and practices is also essential, he argues. It currently takes one litre of water to produce one calorie of food. Even if we halved water use and doubled production, food deficiency would still increase fourfold. Technologies already exist to achieve this, but in Africa they haveoften not been taken up. Mulching, for example, can help rebuild soil fertility and reduce water usage, and is suitable for use even in household gardens, without need for high-tech tools.

Even within nations some producers are ten times more efficient than their producers. We gain the most by improving the poorest performing producers.

Other strategic goals and research gaps include rehabilitating degraded land; reducing food waste — currently one out of every three calories is wasted — and improving property rights so that by 2020, half of African households can own the land they cultivate.

Clay notes that work to reform global food production is underway. For example NEPAD (African Union's New Partnership for Africa's Development), the food company Mars, and WWF are working with experts to sequence the genomes of staple crops. These will be made public within three to five years.

There is no silver bullet for increasing food production. However Clay concludes that, with the correct reforms and the right partnerships, feeding the world without destroying the environment may be achievable.

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