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Food and sustainability

Sustainable agriculture thanks to reform, research and new technology

The efforts of producers and institutions, along with technological progress, can fully and effectively respond to the increasing needs of sustainable agri-food systems.

The efficient production of safe, healthy, and high-quality agricultural products, in a way that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable”, as written in Fixing Food, defines “sustainable agriculture”. The report, a product of the collaboration between the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and BCFN, puts the spotlight on the obstacles blocking the path of sustainable food systems and offers practical solutions to overcome them.

So many problems…
World population will reach 8.1 billion by 2025, with developing countries making up 95% of that growth. Alongside this change, again in poorer countries, is the transition to increasingly “Western” diets: those rich in protein and calories. The first challenge is thus to transform agriculture in a way which meets the dietary needs of all. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (the FAO), arable land must increase approximately 60% (other estimates go over 100%) to match new demands for dietary protein, while remembering that even if livestock makes up just 17% of calories consumed worldwide, 80% of cultivable land is used to feed those same animals. We also mustn’t forget the problem of water resource management: most of the water on the planet is used for agriculture and current estimates indicate a 45% increase in consumption by 2030.

…so many possible solutions
To get to sustainable agriculture, however, we needn’t find new land to farm. Instead, we must focus on increasing crop yields. It’s a lesson that history teaches also: 77% of growth in agricultural production between 1961 and 2005 came about thanks to yield increases. Today, solutions come primarily from technology, which is paving the road to what’s called “precision agriculture”. Satellites and drones which check deforestation rates, GPS which drive tractors, and sensors which monitor various crops and allow us to collect enormous quantities of data to be used to change farming practices are just a few of the characteristics of the agriculture of the future. In some cases, though, the future is now and has already borne fruit. In Germany, thanks to precision agriculture, the use of fertilisers has been reduced by 15%, while in Great Britain farmers save the equivalent of about 1,000 euros per year thanks to smart tractors. Last but not least, vertical or aeroponic farming has produced savings in water and fertilisers while boosting yields.

The role of institutions
Without the efforts of farmers and institutions, technology and research alone can’t achieve the hoped-for results: farmers must play an active role in choosing the best production strategies for each situation and aim for sustainability in addition to productivity. For their part, institutions have a primary role to play in defining plans to improve infrastructure and transportation to facilitate the work of farmers, especially small operations, which drive development in poorer countries. Ad hoc institutional and political reform can ensure sustainable development in parts of the world where we still too often see the appropriation of farm land at the expense of small farmers. Even Europe, which can be proud of its long-standing Common Agricultural Policy (or CAP, launched in 1962), has taken steps towards sustainability. In fact, February 2017 saw the launch of a modernisation phase for the CAP, after constant debates in recent years, starting with the Budget Review Conference organised by the European Commission in November 2008. For twelve weeks, farmers and all interested parties can voice their opinions on the topic and the results will be used to help Europe move towards the sustainable agriculture of the future.
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Haley Swartz is a Research Program Coordinator for the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Haley researches food assistance programs and nutrition governance in developing and low and middle-income countries with Dr. Jessica Fanzo, Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Ethics & Global Food and Agriculture. Haley holds a Master of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies and Government, both from the University of Virginia.

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