Securely sustainable

Securely sustainable


says that the world can both feed itself and protect
the environment over the next quarter of a century


Between now and 2020 the world's population is likely to increase by about 40 per cent to 8 billion. The number of people in sub-Saharan Africa will double; in Asia it will rise by 1.5 billion. Population growth, rapid urbanization - in developing countries urban populations will increase much more rapidly than rural ones - income increases and dietary changes will all result in an increasing demand for food. One estimate projects that cereal demand will grow by about 80 per cent in developing countries and by 55 per cent in the world as a whole. Demand for meat will rise by a staggering 160 per cent in developing countries, though from a very low level, and 75 per cent worldwide.

How will these demands be met? Given that in most places significantly expanding the cultivated area would not be economically or environmentally sound, it will have to be done by using the land already under cultivation more efficiently and by providing food where it is most needed - in developing countries. The central challenges will be to develop a global capacity to produce adequate food in an environmentally sustainable manner and to increase the poorer countries' capacity to produce it, thereby generating incomes and employment through agricultural growth, rather than simply augmenting their food supplies.

Warning signs, however, suggest that the growth in food production has begun to lag. Production from marine fisheries peaked at 100 million tonnes and is now declining; the rate of increase in global grain production dropped by more than half in the late 1980s and 1990s; yields of rice and wheat in Asia, a major producer, have remained static over the last few years; and the amount of grain produced per person has fallen in the past decades.

The growth in yields that will have to be the source of most of the increase in future food production depends on continued research and the successful dissemination of technologies and techniques to farmers. But a second Green Revolution will be harder to achieve than the first.

Looking forward

The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that world foodgrain production will grow by an average of 1.5 per cent per year between 1990 and 2020 if investments - such as in agricultural research, infrastructure, irrigation, markets and extension and training are maintained at least at 1980s levels, and if supplies of such inputs as fertilizers rise. This would be enough to increase the global per capita availability of food and to reduce real prices for most commodities. Over the same period, worldwide livestock production is projected to grow by 1.9 per cent a year but aquaculture is expected to increase less rapidly than between 1984 and 1992, when production doubled, and marine fish catches are likely to be no higher in 2020 than they are today.

However, developing countries will have to more than double their imports - to about 190 million tonnes - while sub-Saharan Africa's food imports will have to roughly triple, posing great challenges for the region in increasing export earnings and for the international community in providing assistance. Developing country deficits will be matched by increased supplies in developed countries. The large import requirements of countries of the former Soviet Union will be reduced and exports from Eastern Europe will probably expand as its agriculture improves on its past performance through better incentives, management and technology. And though cereal prices have increased dramatically since the beginning of this year, the long-term trend is expected to be downward.

These projections are all based on the assumption that future population growth will slow down from current rates and that average incomes will increase roughly in line with the rates of the early 1990s, but also allow for a rapid acceleration of growth in Africa and a recovery and resumption of growth in the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. Lower agriculture-related investment and low income growth would greatly expand the developing countries' import requirements, reduce per capita food availability from 2,821 to 2,662 Calories per day and increase the number of malnourished children to 200 million. Higher investment and income growth would increase imports slightly (as demand would grow with increased production and income), raise per capita food availability to 2,978 Calories per day, and reduce the number of malnourished children to about 100 million.

Agricultural growth alleviates poverty and expands the incomes, employment prospects and entitlements of the poor who, in developing countries, mostly live in rural areas and are engaged in agriculture. Improving food production helps poor farmers, especially if they participate fully in expanding opportunities. It also helps poor consumers, as increased productivity reduces food prices.

Accelerated investment in agricultural research is essential since most of the growth in food production will have to come from yield increases. High returns on such investment have been amply documented, and developing countries should invest at least 1 per cent of the value of their agricultural output in research and move towards 2 per cent within the next five to ten years - currently low-income developing countries invest less than 0.5 per cent compared to 2 per cent and 2.5 per cent for middle- and high-income countries. This research must aim at a diminishing unit-cost of production. The Green Revolution research cut the cost of producing a tonne of rice and wheat by about 30 per cent.

Resource degradation

There is much concern about the damaging impacts of a considerable increase in agricultural intensification on the quality of soils and water and on forests, leading to erosion, pollution and loss of biodiversity.

But how can the world food system provide adequate and stable food supplies consistent with environmental sustainability? The answer depends to a great extent on the policies, technological choices and institutions adopted for organizing food production and distribution.

woman making breadSeveral considerations must be kept in mind. First, some degraded resources can be restored or rehabilitated and every effort must be made to do this wherever feasible. Second, degraded or depleted natural resources may be partly substituted by man-made or alternative ones. Third, techniques to avoid degradation exist which could be developed if efforts are accelerated. Fourth, such institutions as land rights and the security or management of common resources can be organized or improved to greatly enhance incentives and opportunities for conservation. Fifth, price incentives and regulations can be used to reduce pressure on natural resources. And, lastly, decentralization of resource management combined with local-level decision-making and implementation should be encouraged as environmental problems are often location-specific and need local and traditional knowledge, together with new and modern technology, if they are to be solved successfully.

There are indications that about one-fifth of the world's land area is degraded to some extent, though this should be considered only as a preliminary estimate, since the data are rather weak both on the extent of land degradation and on its effect on productivity and sustainability. But it is widely agreed that losses in crop productivity due to degradation are significant and widespread in rangelands and hilly and dryland areas. And between 0.3 and 1.5 million hectares of irrigated land are lost each year through waterlogging and salinization.

Husbanding resources

The overgrazing, deforestation and inappropriate agricultural practices that cause most degradation result from or are exacerbated by inadequate property rights, poverty, population pressure and inappropriate government policies, as well as a lack of access to markets, credit and appropriate technologies for sustainable agricultural development. Unless degraded soils are restored - and healthy ones protected - a growing population and persistent poverty will increase the problem by 2020. Meanwhile, urgent action is needed to ensure that more nutrients are added to soils in Africa, where their depletion has reached critical dimensions.

Too little, not too much, fertilizer is used in most developing countries, due to high prices, insecure supplies and the greater risks associated with producing food in marginal areas. But their rate of growth in fertilizer use, which is projected to decline, will be inadequate for food production and for resource conservation. The use of mineral fertilizers will have to be substantially increased in developing countries to meet food needs by 2020. The major challenge is to promote a balanced and efficient use of plant nutrients from both organic and inorganic sources so as to intensify agriculture sustainably, while avoiding harmful environmental and health consequences.

Losses in developing countries due to pests are very large, but past practices in pesticide use cannot be sustained. Overuse or misuse of pesticides compromises human health, contaminates soils and water, damages ecosystems and leads to pests becoming resistant. Environmentally sound alternatives such as integrated pest management systems - including biological and chemical controls - must be developed and adopted. To achieve this, close cooperation between public regulatory authorities and private industry is needed.

In future, water scarcity may prove to be the most important and binding constraint on ensuring sustainable agriculture. Water was scarce in 20 countries in 1990; another 15 could join them by 2020. New water sources are increasingly expensive to exploit because of the high construction costs of dams and reservoirs and because of concerns about the environmental effects and the displacement of populations. Investment in irrigation has slowed, especially in Asia. There is growing pollution from industrial effluents and poorly treated sewage, and from the runoff of agricultural chemicals. But most critical of all is the low efficiency of water use: research and other action, including institutional changes, are urgently required to improve it.

During the 1980s, 15.4 million hectares of tropical forests worldwide - about 0.8 per cent of their area - were converted to other uses every year: in continental Southeast Asia, Central America and Mexico, conversion averaged about 1.5 per cent a year. Small-scale, poor farmers, clearing land for agriculture, accounted for roughly two-thirds of this, and the process will continue, driven by food insecurity - particularly in Africa - unless they have other ways of feeding their families. There is no consensus on how much forest this generation should bequeath to the next, or on where it should be. But there is evidence that the world's forests are not properly managed and that, when they are felled, the land is not productive enough to allow future generations to meet their needs. Appropriate property rights, fiscal and credit policies and incentive structures must be established to promote their sustainable management.

The global per capita fish catch has remained unchanged for several years and now seems to be falling. Almost 60 per cent of the world's main fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted, so much will have to be done to maintain current output, including regulating access to fish stocks and introducing appropriate technology. Greater investment in aquaculture, and increases in its productivity, are also urgently needed. So, too, are international arrangements to avoid the continued overexploitation of marine fisheries.

Over the next two decades or more, the world can meet the challenges of both food and environmental security. But the rate at which the poor's access to food and nutrition can be expanded depends on overall economic growth and on success in poverty alleviation, not just on the agricultural sector. Reducing poverty, in turn, can help reduce environmental degradation.

Agricultural expansion and intensification is not the only source of pressure on the environment: it also comes from other growth such as in industrialization, urbanization, development of transport and communication, infrastructure, power and the use of energy resources. Sustainable development can only be attained through an overall approach towards environment and development, and their interrelationships in all sectors of the economy. Assuring a sustainable agriculture that alleviates poverty and provides food security is an essential component of this strategy - but not the only one.

Dr. Nurul Islam, a former Minister of Planning in Bangladesh and Assistant Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is Emeritus Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

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