April 20, 2015

Choosing sustainability: food production to 2050

Fiona McKenzie, Australian Futures Project

It is often claimed that we need to increase global food production by 70-100% in order to feed the world in 2050. The assumption that food production is tied to food security dismisses the role of access and consumption to food. This is partly because food security is only weakly linked to the capacity of the world as a whole to produce food. Furthermore, factors influencing future food production are as much socio-economic and political as they are biophysical.

The reality may be less alarming, but how we manage our resources still carries heavy implications for our future

You might also be surprised to learn that, despite the ring of crisis that characterizes discussions on food security, we produce more than enough food to feed today’s population and will have the sufficient amount of resources to provide for future generations. While a larger human population will require for agriculture to expand its productivity, rates of growth will not need to be as high as they have been in the past. Even limits to nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium availability are likely to be overcome with more efficient use. In particular, recycling is a largely untapped option for conserving existing supplies of phosphorous. In terms of agricultural land, there is more than 1.4 billion hectares of potential prime land waiting to be tapped.  While converting this land to agriculture would mean further deforestation, huge biodiversity losses, and significant consequences for the mitigation of climate change, this does not mean it won’t happen.

Rice growing in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Fiona McKenzie.

Rice growing in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Fiona McKenzie.

Theoretically, at the moment there are adequate biophysical resources to boost agricultural production to meet future global food demand. The question is whether or not this will be done sustainably for the long-term provisioning of food. While in total there may be enough resources, not every country is self-sufficient. Many regions of the world face a shortage of arable land for additional cropland expansion and conditions of chronic food scarcity. Food waste and loss continues to occur at rates as high as 40% in both developing and developed countries. Meanwhile, existing agricultural land is still being converted, covered over by car parks, suburbs and other non-agricultural uses. What these trends highlight is that while many of us would hope to see the world produce more food with limited land and water (by consuming less energy, and by using fertilizers and pesticides that have less environmental impacts), it is not the trajectory we are on. There’s little to halt humans from exploiting existing resources to produce more food. If you were hoping for Mother Nature to constrain our behaviour or for a crisis to knock some sense in to us, it will likely come too late.

The point here is not to undermine the case for sustainability, but to make clear that if we want to take a different path–to stay within the safe operating space of the planet–we will have to make the conscious choice to do so. We need to be honest, and level headed, in realizing that there are serious choices facing humanity–options that need to be debated rather than subsumed in a dialogue of crisis.

Harvesting wheat, New South Wales, Australia. Photo taken by the author, Fiona McKenzie.

Harvesting wheat in New South Wales, Australia. Photo by Fiona McKenzie.

Making a move towards a more sustainable future is a multifaceted choice

What if we decided we were actually serious about sustainability? What would we need to do? There is no right answer as there are many choices, possible scenarios, and system inter-linkages to consider. In determining the correct path, social, environmental, and economic considerations come in to play where issues of livelihoods, rural development, and health are central.

Some choices we could make include:

  • limiting agricultural expansion
  • encouraging new crops and greater genetic diversity
  • protecting the ecological foundation of food security
  • focusing on integrated farming systems
  • distributing phosphorus more equitably and efficiently
  • avoiding dangerous climate change
  • directing investment differently
  • limiting consumption
  • focusing on alternative sources of energy for agricultural intensification
  • encouraging more resilient and equitable trade regimes

Most of all, we could choose a different paradigm, where ecological sustainability constitutes the entry point for all agricultural development. Under this new model, sustainable governance and management of ecosystems, natural resources, and earth system processes at large would provide the framework for reconciling the intensification of agriculture with the needs of the planet. Such a paradigm shift could reposition world food production from its current role as the world’s single largest driver of global environmental change to a system that respects the planet’s biophysical processes and functions. We can either: transition our agricultural production to work within the constraints of our planet, or practice avoidance and persist in degrading the condition of our agricultural landscapes. Or we could choose to avoid such difficult debates all together, and continue as we are. The choice is ours.

Read more

Sustainable food production: constraints, challenges and choices by 2050

Dr. Fiona McKenzie is a policy director at the Australian Futures Project and an Honorary Associate at La Trobe University. She wrote her Ph.D. on farmer-driven agricultural innovation in Australia.
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  • Fiona McKenzie
    April 23, 2015 at 2:59am

    Hi Julian,
    You make a good point. Thank you. We cover a lot of this in the paper on which this article is derived. It is why we focus on the demand (including limiting waste) as well as production side, and call for a whole new paradigm – a new way of thinking – where ecological sustainability constitutes the entry point for all agricultural development. See McKenzie and Williams (2015) at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12571-015-0441-1

  • Julian Cribb
    April 21, 2015 at 3:28am

    More about the endless discussion of how we do agriculture differently. Broadacre a
    agriculture isn’t the solution to food security in the C21st. It’s an old technology, mainly devised by the ancient Romans, that is reaching its use-by date for a hot, resource-stressed world of 10bn. We need new thinking on ways to produce food for an urban world that don’t involve massive waste and damage to soil, water, biodiversity, landscapes, the atmosphere and people, instead of endlessly trying to repair a failing wheel. If we limit our thinking to ways to restore yesterday’s technology we will only succeed in accomplishing the eco-collapse that Diamond, Ehrlich, the Club of Rome and so many others have been warning about for almost half a century. If we rely on agriculture to feed us in a world 4-5 degrees warmer, it will probably cost 5 billion lives.