Bigger farms needed to feed nine billion

Scientists have a solution to how nine billion people, the world population by 2030, will be fed. That’s good news. But not everyone will like their plan. They say bigger and more efficient farms, not the organic farmer down the road, are the answer.

The research behind the report, The Environmental Costs and Benefits of High-yield Farming, was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Sustainability in September. It looked at four of the largest farming sectors in the world — Asian paddy rice, European dairy, South American beef and European wheat. The scientists considered how production could be boosted on these farms to feed nine billion people.

Very little research of this kind exists, because most studies don’t factor in the hidden costs that come with farming — such as air pollution and damage to water sources.

The conclusion of the new research is simple: if the existing farms become more efficient, they will yield more and will stop expanding into natural areas.

Increasing demand for food results in farms taking over any space that farmers can find. This means indigenous forests are being cut down and burnt, grasslands are being cultivated and the areas where animals live naturally are vanishing.

And reducing the environmental costs of farming is important because agriculture is responsible for 13% of all global carbon emissions.

At the same time, up to 40% of all the food that is grown is thrown away. That’s either food that people don’t eat, or food that doesn’t make it to shops because it is deemed not good enough to eat.

Agriculture also faces a future in which the climate that it relies on is changing. More extremes, from floods to droughts, are already happening.

The carbon emissions that are driving climate change affect agricultural products in a negative way. More carbon means plants produce less zinc, protein and iron. People already can’t get enough of these from the food they buy. This means people will have to buy and eat more food to get the same amount of nutrients.

Many people argue that the solution to climate change and growing hunger is organic farming.

Previous research published in Nature Sustainability has said that 10% of all farms in the world work this way.

The new research says the effect of organic farming has not been properly studied. It notes that, in the European dairy sector, organic farming has increased soil loss by a third, and it takes double the land that intensive farming does.

The research also doesn’t rule out fertilisers and other chemicals that organic farmers do not use. But these are all-important in a world where the environment is changing rapidly.

The researchers say large-scale farmers also need to look at obvious solutions.

These changes will mean more food is grown on less space. Farms will stay profitable so they can spend more looking after their soil and water. They will also have the resources to survive shocks such as drought.

So maybe the way forward is not the farm store down the road but the big farming chain.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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