How to feed the world?

15.05.2017

By 2050, around 9.7 billion people will live on Earth. Experts believe that until then, we will need about 60% more food than in the early 21st century. How can we feed 9 to 10 billion people in the future without further burdening the climate?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) directly attributes a quarter of the climate emissions to agriculture and the changed land use. Above all, the clearing of forests and conversion of grassland into arable land are increasingly problematic for our climate. In addition, agriculture claims around 40% of the global land surface area and 70% of global water consumption.

Less poverty - more food

Experts predict that in 2050, around 9.7 billion people will be living on Earth. Until then we will need around 60% food more than at the beginning of the 21st century. This massive increase is not based solely on the growth of the world society, but also on the fact that the fight against poverty will be successful. People who earn more money will want a more sophisticated diet. For example, they will eat more meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Thus, the pressure on agricultural production and on the climate will increase. Cattle especially are a main producer of greenhouse gases, followed by pigs and chickens.

The problem of meat production

Equivalent to the emissions of greenhouse gases released from cars, airplanes and trains worldwide, 15% percent of the emitted greenhouse gases are due to meat production. And the demand for meat will likely increase. «The people of the Northern Hemisphere eat a lot of meat,» confirms Nina Buchmann, Head of the World Food System Center at ETH Zurich. «But a global vegetarian diet is still not a solution.» Cattle are optimally adapted to the grassland as ruminants, and grassland covers about 40% of the global land area. Nina Buchmann, therefore, speaks of good judgement when it comes to the subject of food security and climate protection. Furthermore, the entire dietary system should be considered.

Nutrition as a complex system

«It is of no use if a family farm with less than two hectares of land is in harmony with nature, but at the end of the month it is not able the earn its livelihood or pay the bills», says Buchmann. Nor would it be any good if productivity increases, but large amounts of the food would get lost or spoiled. After all, between 30 and 40% of all food produced are thrown away or are lost to the system. The complexity of the nutritional system is immense». Therefore, the World Food System Center is pursuing different directions for a sustainable world diet. «This requires an openness to both old-fashioned and modern ideas.» Modern approaches, such as the use of smart drones, are innovative. Today, digitally controlled machines, for example, plant protection products and fertilizers, are selective and no longer have to cover the entire area, which in turn reduces consumption and thus also the risk to the environment.

Agrobiodiversity is key

Agrobiodiversity - different plant varieties, animal breeds and locally adapted agricultural systems - must also be taken into account, says Nina Buchmann. The founder of Biovision, a foundation for ecological development, claims clearly, that in the agrobiodiversity, the greatest potential for a worldwide sustainable nutritional system is rooted. «It takes an agriculture that does not shoot itself in the foot.» The industrialization of agriculture and the introduction of genetically modified varieties has led to a sharp decline in agricultural diversity since the beginning of the 20th century. In Asia, 30,000 rice varieties were formerly cultivated, today only ten of them remain. The same is with farm animals: 20% of breeds stand on the brink of extinction.  

Promoting genetic diversity

When genetic diversity decreases, we will lose the genetic resources needed to adapt to changing environmental conditions, says Hans R. Herren. «The consequences of an industrial-intensive agriculture with genetically modified seeds are soil destruction, plants which are prone to pests and diseases, extensive pesticide and fertilizer applications, and long-term lower yields. The biggest challenge will be to break the monopoly of agricultural chemistry, which produces both seeds and pesticides,» adds Hans R. Herren. The policy that promotes organic farming and research projects in this area is in demand. The consumer will also have to determine the future production conditions and business models by making good choices. «Currently, organic eggs account for around 25% of the eggs that are sold in Switzerland. Why not 80?» asks Hans R. Herren. In the case of food shopping, the motto ‹the cheaper the better› should not prevail. Consumers should be willing to spend more on food when they get healthy, sustainably produced goods in return.

Lea Schwer is editor of azmedien. For her article in «Schweiz am Wochenende» on April 29 she spoke with Prof. Dr. Nina Buchmann, Head of World Food System Center of ETH Zurich and Dr. Hans R. Herren, Founder of Biovision, Foundation for ecological Development.

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Sat Jun 24 00:19:06 CEST 2017
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