New study shows how existing cropland could feed billions more

Jul 17, 2014
A few key leverage points disproportionately offer the best chances to improve both global food security and environmental sustainability. Credit: Glen Lowry

Feeding a growing human population without increasing stresses on Earth's strained land and water resources may seem like an impossible challenge. But according to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of 3 billion more people and decrease agriculture's environmental footprint.

The report, published today in Science, focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world's crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption on a global scale. It proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that that have the greatest potential for reducing the adverse environmental impacts of agriculture and boosting our ability meet global food needs. For each, it identifies specific "leverage points" where nongovernmental organizations, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can target food-security efforts for the greatest impact. The biggest opportunities cluster in six countries—China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan—along with Europe.

"This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people," said lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment's Global Landscapes Initiative. "By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good."

The major areas of opportunity and key leverage points for improving the efficiency and sustainability of are:

1. Produce more food on existing land. Previous research has detected the presence of a dramatic agricultural "yield gap"—difference between potential and actual crop yield—in many parts of the world. This study found that closing even 50 percent of the gap in regions with the widest gaps could provide enough calories to feed 850 million people. Nearly half of the potential gains are in Africa, with most of the rest represented by Asia and Eastern Europe.

2. Grow crops more efficiently. The study identified where major opportunities exist to reduce climate impacts and improve the efficiency with which we use nutrients and water to grow crops.

Agriculture is responsible for 20 to 35 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, largely in the form of carbon dioxide from tropical deforestation, methane from livestock and rice growing, and nitrous oxide from crop fertilization. The study found that the biggest opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas production are in Brazil and Indonesia for deforestation; China and India for rice production; and China, India and the United States for crop fertilization.

The majority of global environmental effects of agriculture are concentrated in a few countries, driven by a few commodities. Targeting efforts in these areas offers the greatest opportunity for building a sustainable global food system by decreasing greenhouse gas production, improving irrigation efficiency and reducing excess fertilizer use. Credit: West et al., Science/AAAS

With respect to nutrient use, the study found that worldwide, 60 percent of nitrogen and nearly 50 percent of phosphorus applications exceed what crops need to grow. China, India and the U.S.—and three crops, rice, wheat and corn—are the biggest sources of excess nutrient use worldwide, so offer the greatest opportunity for improvement.

With respect to water, rice and wheat are the crops that create the most demand for irrigation worldwide, and India, Pakistan, China and the U.S. account for the bulk of irrigation water use in water-limited areas. Boosting crop water use efficiency, the researchers found, could reduce water demand 8 to 15 percent without compromising food production.

3. Use crops more efficiently. The third major category of opportunities characterized for boosting food production and environmental protection relate to making more crop calories available for human consumption by shifting crops from livestock to humans and reducing food waste.

The crop calories we currently feed to animals are sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people. The study noted that the U.S., China and Western Europe account for the bulk of this "diet gap," with corn the main crop being diverted to animal feed. Although cultural preferences and politics limit the ability to change this picture, the authors note that shifting crops from animal feed to human food could serve as a "safety net" when weather or pests create shortages.

In addition, some 30 to 50 percent of food is wasted worldwide. Particularly significant is the impact of animal products: The loss of 1 kilogram of boneless beef has the same effect as wasting 24 kilograms of wheat due to inefficiencies in converting grain to meat. The authors illustrate how food waste in the U.S., China and India affect available calories, noting that reducing waste in these three countries alone could yield food for more than 400 million people.

"Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity's grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, , and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food," West said. "Fortunately, the opportunities to have a global impact and move in the right direction are clustered. By focusing on areas, and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment. Of course, while calories are a key measure of improving food security, nutrition, access and cultural preferences must also be addressed. But the need to boost security is high. So let's do it."

Explore further: Changing diets favour meat and milk producers: FAO

More information: "Leverage points for improving global food security and the environment," by P.C. West et al. www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/… 1126/science.1246067

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User comments : 23

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Shootist
2.3 / 5 (10) Jul 17, 2014
No surprise here. Malthus was an buffoon and so are all the leftists who follow him.
norman
1 / 5 (5) Jul 18, 2014
Gardeners, I have noticed, use much greater resources per unit of production than commercial growers. People who grow their own veg feel good about it but they take no account of the huge amount of water they use. Municipal ornamental plants are major consumers of water. An otherwise desert island like Lanzarote uses vast quantities of water daily for plants to please tourists. Wine and its vineyards, in leaving areas of soil bare in hot climates, increases evaporation rates and accelerates soil erosion.

I pee into a 3 litre, sealable container (recycled). I flush it and rinse it once a day. If the whole developed world did this then how much water would we save? Perhaps five toilet flushes/day/person? Of course, if science perfected the porta-potty, as used in caravans and pleasure boats, the savings would be even greater. House plumbing could become simpler. If every toilet cistern was a grey water tank and filter yet more. Human waste could be fertiliser, energy.
Mike_Massen
4.3 / 5 (6) Jul 18, 2014
@Shootist
If you mean http://en.wikiped.../Malthus then you are wrong, studies show cramming more people together, consequence of not managing population growth, has negative consequences on behaviour & increases the risk of pandemic, you Shootist are so narrow you only seem able to interpret scientific issues with vague & untestable political propaganda.

@norman
Greater efficiencies can come from improved engineering as you offer in 2nd para but, I wouldn't worry that much re water consumption, it is down to engineers to find ways to exploit limitless insolation to produce/recycle water & have it in abundance. Food quality may be impacted if otherwise restricted...

Atmosphere has massive water & natural propensity to equilibrium, adding water through urban heat islands & fossil fuels soon results in precipitation sadly often not where useful, similarly artificially extracting water results in greater evaporation, it would be smart to arrange this to come from oceans...
ryggesogn2
2 / 5 (8) Jul 18, 2014
"Nearly half of the potential gains are in Africa, with most of the rest represented by Asia and Eastern Europe."

Places controlled by socialist states that limit the capital investment needed to improve efficiency.
The classic example is Zimbabwe as it destroys its productive agriculture with socialism.
Gigel
2.6 / 5 (5) Jul 18, 2014
Considering the price increases and the possibilities nuclear fusion offers, in 50 years from now agriculture may be done in a radically different way. A nuclear fusion reactor can be used to produce light in industrial-scale vertical farms placed underwater or underground, growing crops to be used on the spot, with little use of surface area. That would make possible sustaining tens of billions of people. Maybe the same thing can be done today: vertical multistory inflatable solar greenhouses - worth exploring.

Of course, nuclear fusion would also make energy available for space travel via railguns so Earth may not be the only habitable place.

The idea is, today's problems may be just short-term ones; on the long term, with proper development, they will vanish, just as they did in the past. So the best bet we have is active research and development in the right directions instead of a reactive-conservative attitude that has the risk of running us into a civilization's dead-end.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (5) Jul 18, 2014
The crop calories we currently feed to animals are sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people.

And therein lies the solution to feeding the inevitable 10 billion world population.
MR166
1.7 / 5 (6) Jul 18, 2014
Did anyone notice how CO2 was still cast as a villain here. It is a known fact that CO2 lowers the amount of water and fertilizer needed to grow many crops. Thus, increased CO2 levels should be viewed as and asset by this research.

Today's scientists are not even trying to hide the fact that their science is compromised by their political agenda.
Gigel
1.7 / 5 (3) Jul 18, 2014
We can go for insects and feed them grass. They are far more efficient than cattle. Insect meat may be far cheaper than beef or pork.
ryggesogn2
1.6 / 5 (7) Jul 19, 2014
Here is a scientific study countering the doom and gloom of the Disciples of Paul Ehrlich.
The Disciples are not cheering.
Why?
Dr_toad
Jul 19, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
orti
4 / 5 (4) Jul 19, 2014
From Wikipedia:
-- 25 gallons of ethanol requires 450 pounds of corn – more than enough to feed a person for a year.
-- 1 billion gallons of ethanol requires 1600 billion gallons of water – enough to supply 8 million people for 3 years.
DoieaS
1 / 5 (4) Jul 19, 2014
The crop calories we currently feed to animals are sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people.
We aren't growing the plants for calories only. Why do you think, the people in low natural resource conditions (Chad, Arctic deserts) are living from pasturage instead of farming? The animals can utilize (and synthesize the proteins from) the plants better/more effectively than the people.
No surprise here. Malthus was an buffoon and so are all the leftists who follow him.
The problem with people is not they're leftists, but because they're plain silly and they don't think about actual reasons and consequences of things.
3432682
5 / 5 (4) Jul 19, 2014
Kill off the biofuels programs and subsidies. Funny how the article does not mention them. Those programs produce no net increase in energy, they are therefore a waste of farmland, in many poorer nations they are displacing food production, and they have driven up food prices worldwide hurting the poorest the most. Therefore they are a complete waste of money, land, labor and human potential.
MR166
1.7 / 5 (6) Jul 19, 2014
"The problem with people is not they're leftists, but because they're plain silly and they don't think about actual reasons and consequences of things."

They know the actual reasons and consequences but don't care about them. The power and money involved in controlling others is all that they care about. We are here to help you------just give us all of your freedoms, ROTFLMAO yeah right!
Mike_Massen
5 / 5 (4) Jul 19, 2014
There has never been one AGW denier that has ever been able to explain why Adding CO2, a greenhouse gas with known thermal re-radiation properties, won't increase thermal resistivity and thus increase heat in the system..!

Its as if AGW deniers won't and CANNOT face basic Summation, why is that ? Is their religious belief humans cannot change climate so obstinately entrenched, have any followed up on the basic & simple physics experiments re CO2 - ever ?

To any and all AGW deniers:-

"What property of CO2 when added to the atmosphere makes it work the opposite way it does in a laboratory ie Instead of retaining heat it acts as an improved conductor ?"
MR166
1 / 5 (4) Jul 19, 2014
Mike you are looking at one variable of a 10+ variable equation and think that everything is settled. The values of all of the inputs are unknown as are the effects of all of the natural feedback loops. You want to see Trillions of dollars of new regulations passed on nothing more than an unfounded fear that climate will spiral out of control due to CO2 increases. As proof you offer climate models that have not even been close to predicting today's temperatures.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (5) Jul 20, 2014
There has never been one AGW denier that has ever been able to explain why Adding CO2, a greenhouse gas with known thermal re-radiation properties, won't increase thermal resistivity and thus increase heat in the system....blah..blah

Yep and here is the proof
http://wattsupwit...eriment/
Mike_Massen
5 / 5 (3) Jul 20, 2014
@MR166
No known gasses which reverse the Adding of CO2 to the atmorphere
re heat, in that context its an absolute - it retains more heat than the other main gasses.
You don't understand importance of temperature vs heat.
IPCC climate models show increased heat in the system, confirmed by observation.
Feedback, the most powerful is the buffer of melting ice, confirmed it is happening
at an unprecedented scale due to heat retention.
Higher CO2 also affects food production, some plants shift equilibria to produce cyanide.
Money flows around the system, diverting so called trillions from fossil to renewables
makes perfect sense as fossils pollute via CO2 & radiation etc. Besides I don't see
your claim of trillions substantive. In Australia we had a carbon tax, it reduced power
consumption from fossil fuel plants, one closed, others turned off turbines. The
comparative cost for the effect was negligible.

@antigoracle
Incorrectly/badly edited video doesnt counter thermal properties of CO2

Mike_Massen
5 / 5 (2) Jul 20, 2014
antigoracle offered
Yep and here is the proof
http://wattsupwit...eriment/
Thats a good find, its not proof, it shows a fair analysis of experimental method, its not definitive, there are a few flaws but, it is a fair to good attempt.

It should already be known that crafted videos, all of them, should be taken with a grain a salt.

Lazy antigoracle, you didn't read the whole thing, especially at the bottom:-
I should make it clear that I'm not doubting that CO2 has a positive radiative heating effect in our atmosphere, due to LWIR re-radiation, that is well established by science.
Politicians are populists & media unfortunately tend to communicate with the lowest common denominator the dumbed down masses that would'nt bother & cant think straight so heaps of short-cuts are made to get the message across.

Despite politicians & media, AGW Scientists are correct, the quote above re CO2 is valid !
MR166
1 / 5 (4) Jul 20, 2014
Mike no one is denying that CO2 in the atmosphere causes warming. What is in question is the linearity of the effects of any increases, how much warming has taken place due to mankind and how much warming is due to natural cycles, how additional warming combined with additional CO2 levels will affect crop production and whether or not the earth's natural feedback loops will self correct the climate or lead to runaway heating.

In order to make living affordable everything has to be judged by it's cost/benefit ratio. Are there poisons in our water, yes, but to remove them all would be so expensive that running water would be unaffordable.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (2) Jul 20, 2014
We can go for insects and feed them grass. They are far more efficient than cattle. Insect meat may be far cheaper than beef or pork.
@Gigel
not likely to occur in todays society. they have problems with soy.. and you suggest insects?

having eaten them myself during survival training for the military, I know that they CAN be made palatable, but there is a HUGE difference in nutrition. You would have to consume far more than normally available in order to get the same levels of nutrition... you can survive off of it, but living or working would be different.

Mike_Massen
5 / 5 (3) Jul 20, 2014
@MR166
Re your most recent posting of ~ 2hrs ago ~ by sentence

1. Evidence supports CO2 heat retention rather well
2. Records shows differential extent of warming for ~ last 100 yrs
3. Natural vs un-natural warming is closely correlated with CO2 ie Separable.
4. Increased CO2 has generally negative effects on food production
by biochemistry & location re desertification & flooding in low areas
5. Need to understand heat, no amount of 'feedback' eliminates it
Either reflect more away or emit more, there is nothing else.
6. Reducing ice is reducing reflectance, more CO2 resists emitting more.
Balance of evidence ~50yrs sadly supports tendency to runaway, esp melting ice !

There is no realistic suggestion shifting to energy from non CO2 emitters impacts seriously
upon energy or food costs, the fossil fuel industry has cost us a great deal
and in many parts of the world continues to consume govt subsidies !

You seem to have been misled as to real costs of last ~80+ years...
MR166
1 / 5 (3) Jul 21, 2014
There is no realistic suggestion shifting to energy from non CO2 emitters impacts seriously
upon energy or food costs, the fossil fuel industry has cost us a great deal
and in many parts of the world continues to consume govt subsidies !"

Yeah Mike, I will agree with you when solar powered tractors and harvesters are in wide use. While you are at it, please provide a link to solar powered commercial airline tickets and solar/electric long haul trucking operations.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Jul 24, 2014
"While Americans in the nearby city of Detroit face life in third world conditions, unable to even afford running water, the state of Michigan decided to direct its resources towards cracking down on a small food co-op in Standish for having the utter audacity to provide milk, butter, cream and eggs to people who bought shares in the organic dairy.
Read more at http://freedomout...yZQjQ.99