The IPCC Report on Climate Change and Land raised agriculture and the increasing food production as main reasons why global land use, particularly in developing countries, has gone in a completely wrong direction considering climate change mitigation. Vast forest and other land areas have been cleared for agricultural use, particularly in the tropics. The population is growing and domestic animal products, which load the environment, are taking over larger parts in our diets. Different countries need to find the solutions that are the most ideal for them.
Global food production has grown significantly during recent decades. The average availability of food per capita has improved globally, even though the world’s population has doubled since the 1950s. Still, parts of the global population suffer from malnutrition (even 800 million people at various degrees), while the number of well-fed people has increased along with the overall population. Responses have been found for this growing demand, even to the extent that real prices of agricultural products have continued their slow decline until the 2000s. The main reason for this is the increase in productivity, regardless of the increase in demand. Average yields and the volume of animal production have increased significantly. The use of production inputs, such as fertilisers, crop protection agents and machines, has increased notably, and new land areas and new work-saving technologies have been adopted.
Is this sustainable? This depends on how production has been increased and to what markets it has been sold. The way economic mechanisms work is that markets with the highest ability to pay and the most added value are served first. For example, to satisfy the substantially growing demand for meat in Asia, the volume of domestic animals and the feed they need has increased not only in Asia, but also in Australia and New Zealand and, in particular, in Latin America. These production areas have also earlier boosted their exports to high-paying markets in industrial countries, where the consumption of domestic animal products grew until the previous decade, and is only now starting to show signs of levelling. In Europe in the early 2000s, it was said that transferring European agricultural production to developing countries would help these countries and reduce environmental loads coming from agriculture in Europe. However, growing agricultural production based on the significantly increased use of production inputs has not nearly always helped poorer agricultural areas that usually cannot afford the more expensive production inputs. The mass movement of people to cities continues strongly in many countries, while food production has increased in the already large export countries.
The Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land-Use and Energy (FABLE) Consortium is looking, in cooperation between research groups from 18 different countries, for new and more sustainable pathways for the food system and related land use. The FABLE report lists, more extensively than the IPCC Report on Climate Change and Land, many serious problems that have resulted from the growing food production:
- Environmental crisis: Diverse contamination and decreased quality of water and land, scarcity of water, greenhouse gas emissions and accelerated decline in biodiversity
- Health crisis: Poor nutrition and increasing obesity globally
- Poverty in agricultural areas
- Increased vulnerability of country-specific food systems to climate change
These crises can already be seen in many countries. The overall ability to recover from various shocks has decreased in many places. Even though the increase in food production looks good in statistics, it hides altogether different layers of reality. The future seems menacing, not least due to climate change.
The FABLE report’s country-specific analyses and development pathways until 2050 show that demand for domestic animal products, in particular, can grow significantly, if the initial level is low. With regard to development pathways in Asian countries, the consumption of domestic animal products per capita is expected to increase until 2050. Instead, this consumption is expected to decrease significantly in certain industrial countries. Correspondingly, the consumption of fish and protein-containing vegetables (legumes, nuts) is expected to increase broadly, also in developing countries, provided that the quality of nutrition is high in accordance with, for example, Nordic recommendations, and that western diets based on meat, sugar and starch do not take over.
According to country-specific pathways, the key method towards a more sustainable food economy seems to be an increase in agricultural production. In many countries, yields and animal production are expected to increase by several tens of per cent. In certain countries, yields are even expected to double. This may certainly be possible if the initial level is low. Education and research help to find solutions for increased productivity. In this case, the clearing of forests for agricultural purposes can be avoided, some poorly productive farmland can be afforested or restored for other environmentally friendlier purposes, which is also one of the goals of increased productivity.
The FABLE report’s country-specific pathways show that we can move towards a more sustainable food economy by the following means:
- Significant acceleration in increasing productivity – more from less
- Vegetable-based diets and fewer domestic animal products
- Slower population growth
- Less food wastage
- Stabilised demand for non-food products, including bioenergy, grown on fields and stopping growth at a global level
- Decreasing the need for pastures and farmland at a global level
These means and transitions significantly help to maintain biodiversity and bind carbon. It is important that different countries look for and find their own ways and solutions in their specific conditions and situations, within the scope of global trade and cooperation. The key factor is to increase the quality of nutrition for the growing population. In areas where malnutrition continues to be a problem, food production and its productivity need to be increased, including domestic animal production. It is important to increase the research capacity and compile deep country-specific analyses of what should be done in each country and what their role on a global scale is.