We are already working working towards increasing yield while reducing the environmental impacts of conventional farming. The Green Revolution relied on very intensive and unsustainable use of resources such as water and fossil fuel based chemicals. With that being said, commercial farming has started to make huge strides.
Mulligan Farm is one of the many farms leveraging high-tech equipment and precise field data in order to help increase the crop yield and efficiency. Within the next decade, massive speciality tractors and attachments that have made large-scale farming possible could be potentially replaced by multiple small, driverless machines, says Carl Dillon, a professor of farm management from the University of Kentucky. Each of the driverless machines will be working on a single row of crops at a time, their paths would vary less than a inch. On top of that, small drones would be hovering from plants to plants, dropping just enough fertiliser or spraying the right amount of pesticides. In some places, such as Japan, the future is already here. Drones are used to treat small areas that are impractical or impossible to reach in a large, fuel-guzzling tractor.
Some farms are also adopting precision agriculture, also known as site-specific farming. It is made possible by combining Global Positioning System (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS). The GPS-based application in precision farming are being used for farm planning, field mapping, tractor guidance, yield mapping as so on. GPS enables the farmers to work during low visible field conditions such as rainy or foggy days.
In the past, it was very difficult for farmers to correlate production techniques and crop yields with land variability. Thus, this limited their ability to develop the most effective soil/plant treatment strategies that could have increase their production. Today, precision agriculture will be able to enable the farmers to have more precise application of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers as well as better control of the dispersion of those chemicals. This will therefore reduce the cost for farmers, producing higher yield and reducing environmental impact.
It is believed that the benefits of precision farming can only be realised by big commercial farms. However, that is not that case. There are many inexpensive and easy to implement methods that can be developed for use by farms of all sizes. Through the use of GPS as well as GIS and remote sensing, information needed for improving land and water use can be collected. Farmers are able to achieve additional benefits by combining better utilisation of fertilisers and other soil amendments, determining the economic threshold for treating pest and weed infestations.
Organic farming can also play a role in reducing the environmental impacts. First, let us define "organic". Organic farming is a method of crop and livestock production that involves much more than choosing not to use pesticides, fertilisers, genetically modified organisms (GMO), antibiotics and growth hormones.
Organic production is a holistic system where it is designed to optimise the productivity and fitness of diverse communities within the agro-ecosystem, including soil organisms, plants, livestock and people. The main goal of organic farming is to develop enterprises that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment.
The general principles of organic farming or production, according to the Canadian Organic Standards (2006) is as follows:
a) Protecting the environment by minimising soil degradation and erosion, decreasing pollution, optimising biological productivity and promote a sound state of health.
b) Maintaining long term soil fertility by optimising conditions for biological activity within the soil
c) Maintain biological diversity
d) Recycle materials and resources whenever possible
e) Providing care that meets the behavioural needs of livestock
f) Prepare organic products by emphasising the process and handling methods in order to maintain the organic integrity and vital qualities of the products throughout all stages of the production
g) Rely on renewable energy when possible in locally organised agricultural systems.
So the main question is, why should one adopt organic farming practices? The main reason is the emphasis on reducing environmental impact. Organic farmers that cares about the welfare of the environment find their method of farming to be profitable as well as rewarding as they contribute to the sustainable production of food.
Step Four: Shift Diets
It would be far easier to feed 9 billion people by year 2050 if more of the crops we grow are fed to people instead of livestock. Today, only 55% of the world's crop calories are fed to people directly. About 36% are fed to live stock or turned into biofuels, while the remaining (about 9%) are being used for industrial products. Although many of us consume meat, dairy and eggs from animals raised in feedlots, only a fraction of the calories fed to the livestock make their way into the meat and milk that we currently consumed. It is estimated that for every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we only get around 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or 3 of beef.
We need to find more ways to grow meat as well as shifting to less intensive meat diets. New research from World Resources Institute finds that if the average American reduce their meat and dairy diet, they could cut their diet-related environmental impacts by nearly half. Shifting Diets for a sustainable Food Future presents solutions regarding the challenge of feeding a growing population by reducing meat consumption, especially beef as well as helping shift billions of people to more sustainable diets.
There is a 70% gap between food available today and expected food demand by 2050. Research by WFI shows that shifting diets to a more plant based diet can help close the food gap by 30%.
A growing body of research shows that the rising consumption of meat and dairy is putting pressure on land, water, and climate. We are not advocating a complete abstinence of consuming meat and dairy as that is not realistic. Working with modelers at CIRAD and INRA, WRI has evaluated that there are 8 alternative diet scenarios where the average American can help reduce diet related environmental impacts just by eating less meat and dairy. Even just by shifting towards other meats such as chicken or fish can significantly help reduce the agricultural resource use as well as greenhouse gas emission.
A large population, especially in developed countries, eat much more protein than they need. WRI showed that it is still possible for them to meet their protein needs by cutting down on meat and dairy in their diets. Take the average American for example, who eats nearly 100g of protein a day, which is doubled the amount of protein he needs (approximately 56g). A much smaller gap than people realise exists between how much protein they require and how much they are already getting from plant-based sources such as beans, grains, soy and vegetables. In order to make sustainable diet choices easier for consumers, WRI introduces a new Protein Scoreboard where they rank foods from lowest (plant-based foods) to highest impact (meat such as beef, goat and lamb).
The harder problem would be how to move billions of people toward diets that are more plant-based rather than meat. It would be necessary to go just beyond education and information campaign as that will only change the attitudes of a few. More effort needs to be done to influence the food industry to get on board with this initiative.
To help billions of people to move to more sustainable diets, WRI have created something called the Shift Wheel, which harnesses marketing and behaviour change tactics the food industry are currently using to influence consumer purchasing. It also offers additional strategies for companies, NGOs, governments and social influencers to increase the share of plant based food in people's diet.
As a next step, WRI will put the Shift Wheel into action by forming a coalition of leading food service companies, food manufacturers, and restaurants to develop and test new ideas.
Step Five: Reduce Waste
An estimated 25% of the world's food calories and up to approximately 50% of the total food weight are lost or wasted before they are consumed. In more developed countries, most of the waste occurs in home, restaurants or supermarkets. In poorer countries, food is often lost between the farmer and the market due to unreliable storage and transportation. Tackling waste would be essential if we would want to reach our goal of feeding 9 billion people by 2050.
There are many ways to reduce waste at home. Just by keeping a simple list with weekly meals in mind, you are able to save money and time and eat healthier food. If you buy no more than you need, you will be able to keep it fresh and use it all. You should also plan your food with "use date"in mind. 60% of us end up throwing away food because it has passed it's "use date". When storing food, it is important to store food according to instruction on the label. Leaving food out of the fridge will significantly cut the life food food such as milk, cooked meats and salad. It is recommended to keep the fridge between 1-5°C as this helps you get the best from your food. If one has overcooked for the day, keep the leftovers for the next day to make a delicious meal is one of the ways you can ensure you eat everything you buy. Finally, feed your garden. An average of over 70% of household waste is landfilled each year. Composting reduces the amount of rubbish you put out for collection and creates a free, nutritious fertiliser that will help make your garden more beautiful.
Schools can also play a role in helping to reduce the food waste. Here is an infographic regarding the issue:
Taken together, the suggested 5 steps above could more than double the world's food supply while simultaneously cut the environmental impact of agriculture worldwide. In order for us to succeed in implementing the 5 steps, it would require a big shift in our mindset. For most of our history, we have been blinded by the overzealous imperative of more, more and more in agriculture in terms of clearing more land, growing more crops, using more resources and so on. We need to find a balance between producing more food and reducing the environmental impact in order to sustain the planet for future generations.
This is a pivotal moment for all of us as we face this unprecedented challenge to food security as well as the preservation of our global environment. With that being said, the good news is we already know what we ought to do. We just have to figure out how do we do it. Addressing the global food challenge will require us to become more thoughtful about the food we put on our plates. We would need to make the connections between our food and the farmers who grow it, and between our food and the land, watersheds, and climate that sustain us. As we steer our grocery carts down the aisles of supermarkets, the future is in our hands as we make our decisions on what to buy.