Targeted efforts to make food systems more efficient in key parts of the world could meet the basic calorie needs of 3 billion extra people and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture without using additional land and water, researchers said.
In a study published in the journal Science, researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment looked at 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertiliser consumption, including rice, wheat and corn.
The biggest opportunities for boosting food production lie in Africa, they suggested, while initiatives to make agriculture more sustainable should focus on six countries – China, India, the United States, Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan – as well as Europe.
Their main recommendations are to produce more food on existing farmland by increasing yields, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, use less nutrients and water to grow crops, feed fewer crops to animals as fodder, and cut food waste.
“Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food,” said the study’s lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative.
“By focusing on areas, crops 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,” he added in a statement.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said food production needs to rise by 60 percent to feed a projected global population of more than 9.5 billion people by mid-century, up from around 7 billion now.
But global production of food is responsible for more than 70 percent of freshwater consumption and 80 percent of deforestation, while over a fifth of all cultivated land and 30 percent of forests are being degraded by unsustainable agriculture, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).