Globally, agriculture is perhaps the most important activity for human wellbeing, but it has the potential to be one of the most environmentally damaging to Earth. As global populations grow and per capita consumption increases, the pressure will increase on food systems and the Earth’s fragile ecosystems. In many ways, how we feed growing populations will determine the state of biodiversity and impacts on the global environment in the 21st Century.
Dr. David Williams is a conservation scientist researching ways to balance the growing demand for food with environmental concerns, with a particular focus on conserving biodiversity. After a Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge looking at land-use strategies to balance beef production with environmental concerns in Yucatán, Mexico, Dr. Williams is now using large datasets to explore how to reduce the ultimate drivers of biodiversity loss. We asked him to tell us more about the state of global agricultural challenges and what the world can do to address them.
The global food problem
Here is the great challenge: by 2050, it is estimated that the global population will expand to 10 billion (World Resources Institute). Not only will more food be needed to feed this growing population, but the demand for different types of food with greater impacts on the environment is expected to grow as a result of economic development.
World Resources Institute
A study by Tilman and Clark (Nature) demonstrated that demand for meat consumption increases as countries grow wealthier, so as various nations grow economically, the demand for meat will also increase dramatically, with associated impacts on GHG emissions, biodiversity loss, and land usage. The inefficiency of meat production (i.e., the unfavorable ratio of calories fed to an animal to the total calories that the animal can provide as food to humans) place it at the top of the list for intensity of resource use and environmental damage compared to other foods, with red meat — mainly beef and lamb — being particularly high-impact (World Resources Institute).
Since the production of meat and other crops will almost certainly grow to meet increased demand, we need to improve agriculture yields without irreversibly damaging the land and environmental resources. Learning to manage the footprint of both animals and the crops grown to feed them will be essential in developing a globally sustainable food system.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
Many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are either directly or indirectly related to agriculture. For example, goals two (Zero Hunger), three (Good Health And Well-Being), and one (No Poverty) are directly dependent on agricultural production. Achieving these goals is dependent on others, such as goal seven (Affordable and Clean Energy).
Having a set of guidelines such as the UN SDGs is critical to achieving much-needed milestones to maintain Earth. However, at times there may be trade-offs between the goals. For example, achieving goal two (Zero Hunger) could impact our ability to achieve goal fifteen (Life on Land), which strives to protect ecosystems, unless agriculture is managed with long-term sustainability in mind.
Negative impacts of increasing agriculture
While feeding a growing and increasingly prosperous population, agriculture has become a leading driver of biodiversity loss. The 2016 World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Index, which measures trends in almost 4,000 animal species worldwide, shows a decline in animal biodiversity of 58% since 1970 -- largely due to the expansion and increase in agriculture. This decrease is largely due to habitat loss (land being used to farm) and logging (forested land being cleared to create more farms) (The IUCN Red List 2019).
Other negative impacts of agricultural expansion include large increases in GHG emissions released into our atmosphere, as well as nitrates from fertilizer and animal waste that find their way into our water systems.
Williams, et al
Agriculture already takes up 40% of the ice-free land on earth, and available land is primarily in the extreme north, extreme south, and in deserts (see graphic above). Unfortunately, we do not have a spare Earth that can grow more food. So, how can we produce more food?
Sustainable food production at a local level
With a finite amount of land and a fragile Earth, we are faced with two options to fully optimize land use for agriculture: land sharing and land sparing. Land sharing expands the amount of land used for farming but destroys native habitats (think: soybeans vs. rainforest) (Green et al). The second strategy, land sparing, increases agricultural yields from land already used for agriculture, without destroying additional native habitat (Green et al).
While researching the effects of cattle ranching on the land and native animal species in Yucatán, Dr. Williams found that most species decline rapidly as agriculture takes over more land. This means that we need to maximize the protection of native habitats to save these species, which means we need a land sparing strategy—combining high yield agriculture with habitat protection. In contrast, because most of the damage done by agriculture is in the initial conversion of natural habitats, maintaining low-yield, ‘wildlife-friendly’ farming offers few benefits and means a larger area is needed to produce the same amount of food.
Dr. Claire Feniuk
Similar global studies produced the same general results across multiple crops studied. The more land sparing agriculture strategies are utilized, the more opportunity there is to protect the species that exist on the occupied land.
A sustainably grown future
With the growing challenge of increased demand for food and agriculture, there are a number of solutions that have emerged with the potential to increase the efficiency of our global food system. Some of these will involve behavior change, such as reducing consumption of foods with intensive production practices like meat, and others will be technological innovations that help to advance land sparing strategies. By reducing food waste and increasing efficiencies in the supply chains of fresh fruits and vegetables, Apeel can also be one of these solutions.