Feeding world’s hungry people under threat as water scarcity, land degradation rise: FAO

A new Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report which profiles the state of the natural resource base upon which world food production depends, has said the scarcity and degradation of land and water is a growing threat to the world’s food security.

According to the report titled “State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW),” widespread degradation and deepening scarcity of land and water resources have placed a number of key food production systems around the globe at risk, posing a profound challenge to the task of feeding a world population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050.

The report, which was published November 28, 2011, notes that while the last 50 years witnessed a notable increase in food production, “in too many places, achievements have been associated with management practices that have degraded the land and water systems upon which food production depends.”

“Today a number of those systems face the risk of progressive breakdown of their productive capacity under a combination of excessive demographic pressure and unsustainable agriculture use and practices,” the report says.

No region, according to the FAO, is immune – systems at risk can be found around the globe, from the highlands of the Andes to the steppes of Central Asia, from Australia’s Murray-Darling river basin to the central United States.

There is an increased competition for land and water, as the report says it has become “pervasive”. It said this includes competition between urban and industrial users as well as within the agricultural sector – between livestock, staple crops, non-food crops, and biofuel production.

According to the report, between 1961 and 2009, the world’s cropland grew by 12%, but agricultural production expanded 150%, due to a significant increase in yields of major crops.

But one of the warning signs, the SOLAW report flagged, is that rates of growth in agricultural production have been slowing in many areas and are today only half of what they were during the heyday of the green revolution.

Overall, the report paints the picture of a world experiencing an increasing imbalance between availability and demand for land and water resources at the local and national levels.

It warns that the number of areas reaching the limits of their production capacity is fast increasing.

According to the FAO, the report for the first time ever provided a global assessment of the state of the planet’s land resources as it indicates that 25% of the earth’s lands are degraded.

“Fully one quarter are highly degraded. Another 8% are moderately degraded, 36% are stable or slightly degraded and 10% are ranked as improving,” it said.

The remaining shares of the earth’s land surface, the FAO adds are either bare (around 18%) or covered by inland water bodies (around 2%). It noted these figures include all land types, not just farmland.

Some 1.6 billion hectares of the world’s best, most productive lands are currently used to grow crops of which FAO indicated that parts of these land areas are being degraded through farming practices that result in water and wind erosion, the loss of organic matter, topsoil compaction, salinization and soil pollution, and nutrient loss.

Water scarcity and pollution are on the rise. The report noted that water scarcity is growing and salinization and pollution of groundwater and degradation of water bodies and water-related ecosystems are rising. “Large inland water bodies are under pressure from a combination of reduced inflows and higher nutrient loading — the excessive build up of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Many rivers do not reach their natural end points and wetlands are disappearing.”

The two issues are said to be a poverty trap for the world’s population.

“Worldwide, the poorest have the least access to land and water and are locked in a poverty trap of small farms with poor quality soils and high vulnerability to land degradation and climatic uncertainty,” the report notes.

The menace of climate change is also posing a threat to food production.

“And climate change is expected to alter the patterns of temperature, precipitation and river flows upon which the world’s food production systems depend…As a result, the challenge of providing sufficient food for an ever-more hungry planet has never been greater,” SOLAW says — especially in developing countries, where quality land, soil nutrients and water are least abundant.

Figures from FAO shows some 40% of the world’s degraded lands are found in areas with high poverty rates – still, in a sign that degradation is a risk across all income groups, 30% of the world’s degraded lands are in areas with moderate levels of poverty while 20% are in areas with low poverty rates.

FAO estimates that by 2050, rising population and incomes will require a 70% increase in global food production equating to another one billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million tonnes of livestock products produced each year.

“For nutrition to improve and for food insecurity and undernourishment to recede, future agricultural production will have to rise faster than population growth and consumption patterns adjusted,” says SOLAW.

The report recommends that improving the efficiency of water use by agriculture will be key in solving some of the problem.

With most irrigation systems across the world perform below their capacity, the report said a combination of improved irrigation scheme management, investment in local knowledge and modern technology, knowledge development and training can increase water-use efficiency.

It also recommended an innovative farming practices such as conservation agriculture, agro-forestry, integrated crop-livestock systems and integrated irrigation-aquaculture systems hold the promise of expanding production efficiently to address food security and poverty while limiting impacts on ecosystems.

Another area where improvement is needed, FAO said is increasing investment in agricultural development.

“Gross investment requirements between 2007 and 2050 for irrigation water management in developing countries are estimated at almost $1 trillion. Land protection and development, soil conservation and flood control will require around $160 billion,” the UN agency said.

“The SOLAW report highlights that the collective impact of these pressures and resulting agricultural transformations have put some production systems at risk of breakdown of their environmental integrity and productive capacity. These systems at risk may simply not be able to contribute as expected in meeting human demands by 2050. The consequences in terms of hunger and poverty are unacceptable. Remedial action needs to be taken now,” Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General was quoted as saying.

By Ekow Quandzie

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