A team of researchers from Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Germany has come up with a five-point plan to double the world's food production while reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture.
Their findings were published in the journal Nature after they combined information gathered from crop records and satellite images from around the world.
McGill University geography professor Navin Ramankutty, one of the study's team leaders, says this is the first time such a wide range of data has been brought together to create new models of agricultural systems and their environmental impacts.
"[The study Solutions for a Cultivated Planet] has allowed us to see some clear patterns" that are global in scope, Ramankutty says. "This makes it easier to develop some concrete solutions for the problems facing us."
The team recommends the following for feeding the world while protecting the planet:
- Halting farmland expansion: Land clearing for agricultural purposes should stop, particularly in the tropical rainforest. The researchers say this can be achieved using incentives such as payment for ecosystem services and ecotourism.
- Improving agricultural yields: Many farming regions in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe are not living up to their potential for producing crops. They say improved use of existing crop varieties, better management and improved genetics could increase current food production by nearly 60 per cent.
- Supplementing the land more strategically: Current use of water, nutrients and agricultural chemicals suffers from what the research team calls "Goldilocks' Problem": too much in some places, too little in others, rarely just right. The study recommends "strategic reallocation" of these essential elements.
- Shifting diets: Growing animal feed or biofuels on prime croplands, no matter how efficiently, is a drain on human food supply, the researchers say. They say dedicating croplands to direct human food production could boost calories produced per person by nearly 50 per cent. The study says shifting non-food uses such as animal feed or biofuel production away from prime cropland could make a big difference.
- Reducing waste: One-third of the food produced by farms ends up discarded, spoiled or eaten by pests. Eliminating waste in the path that food takes from farm to mouth could boost food available for consumption another 50 per cent, the researchers say.
The United Nations World Food Program says there are 925 million undernourished people in the world today.
UN food agencies released a report earlier in the week saying that food price volatilty is here to stay, in part because of growing demand for biofuels.