Strategy for feeding world now and later

Global agriculture is facing enormous challenges in meeting the food, fiber, feed and biofuel needs of the 7 billion global population.

Farmers will be expected to grow crops and raise livestock under conditions of rising input costs, dwindling natural resources and climate change. With continued population growth, the demand for food is expected to double by 2050. Due to tight supplies at the global level, the era of low food prices has ended. A billion people in the world today are either malnourished or have no access to adequate food — primarily due to logistics, dietary habits or ill-conceived government policies.

Agriculture is the most dominant land-use system in the world, with about 40% of the land surface being either cropped or grazed. About 70% of water withdrawals are for irrigation. Some experts claim agriculture is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Others argue that green plants are solar panels that sequester vast amounts of atmospheric carbon in plant tissues.

But a growing awareness of the unintended consequences of some ag production practices in the world has led to heightened public expectations for improved environmental, community, labor, food safety and animal welfare standards.

Increased expectations have prompted regulatory hardships for farmers. Also, the invasive plants and animal pests pose a serious threat to the food system. The question is whether the industry can meet these challenges on a sustainable basis.

Meat preferences

In terms of resource utilization, plant-based diets are generally more efficient than animal protein-based diets, partly because not all of the calories are captured when feed goes through an animal. As developing countries progress and incomes rise, about 4 billion people in the world are changing their dietary habits to consume more meat. This will require additional crops to feed animals, putting demands on limited land, water and nutrient resources.

Only 60% of plant food is being directly fed to humans. The balance is consumed by livestock and biofuel use. While animals eat some plants that can be directly consumed by humans, many animals eat roughages and poor-quality food unfit for humans.

This emerging topic was the focus of a recent seminar sponsored by the North Central Cooperative Extension Association and Natural Resource Program Leaders. The intent was to achieve greater awareness of the critical issues in feeding the world’s population and encouraging Extension to provide leadership for relevant educational programs.

The consensus was that we are falling behind the production targets needed to feed the planet’s inhabitants. This was attributed to yield stagnations in some of the most productive cropping systems in the world (Europe, India and China, for example), limited supplies of quality arable land, removal of water from aquifers faster than it can be recharged, urbanization, and the convergence of food and energy.

Food production strategies

An international team of environmental and agricultural scientists suggest these strategies to double food production and reduce environmental impacts by 2050:

Close “yield gaps” on underperforming lands.

Increase efficiencies of inputs, such as feed, fertilizer and water, with best management practices on a universal scale.

Close diet gaps and shift to more balanced diets emphasizing plant-based food.

Reduce waste and spoilage. About 30% of food is wasted due to lack of markets and infrastructure.

Address unrestrained agricultural expansion at the expense of rain forests and wetlands to preserve biodiversity and reduce ag’s overall carbon footprint.

Agriculture has faced many complex challenges. Efficient production techniques have made U.S. ag the envy of the world. U.S. farmers will be called upon to play a vital role in feeding the global population. But the need to embrace conservation practices to protect land and water resources is even more important.

The challenge to feed the current 7 billion people is a global issue requiring a global approach. A fundamental requirement would be greater cooperation and dialogue between opposing views — rich and poor economies, rural and urban populations, and traditionalists and environmentalists.

The demands of feeding a global population will economically impact our local farmers, consumers and rural communities. Michigan State University Extension will continue to educate and empower the rural and urban communities through the application of research-based knowledge to critical issues, needs and opportunities. MSUE is primed to play its role in keeping Michigan agriculture resilient and profitable into the future.

Silva is an MSU Extension educator.

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This article published in the June, 2012 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.