Can farmers keep up with global food demand in this changing climate?

Suzy Friedman

Martin Pettitt/Flickr

Every once in a while I come across a report or news article that makes me stop, take a step back and recognize the truly daunting nature of the challenges we environmentalists face in this world. For example, earlier this summer, a new report, by researchers from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, concluded that crop yields around the world are not increasing fast enough to meet the needs of the population expected to inhabit our planet by 2050. And even more recently, in the New York Times, Gary Nabhan wrote an editorial called “Our Coming Food Crisis” that called out the impacts of this summer’s heat wave on California agriculture.

These reports and articles are more than sobering, a lot more than sobering. In the Ione report, the researchers say that, to feed the world in 2050, yields on maize, rice, wheat, and soybeans will have to rise by 60% to 110%. But right now projections show an increase of only 40% to 65%. The researchers also found that the three nations that produce the most rice and wheat had very low rates of increase in crop yields. In other places, the trajectories of population growth and food production are heading in different directions. One example was Guatemala, where the number of people dependent on corn is increasing even as corn productivity is declining.

This is scary not only because of the political and social problems that food insecurity can create, but also because if we are unable to double yields on existing cultivated lands, we are likely to clear more land for agriculture –pushing environmental concerns and efficiency measures to one side. This will have a ripple effect, putting additional pressure on already stressed water resources and wildlife habitat, even as the clearing of more land (releasing all the carbon stored in the vegetation that once stood there) accelerates climate change.

This cycle, left unchecked, can only end with farmers competing for increasingly scarce water and arable land in the face of ever more extreme weather – from floods to droughts—brought on by climate change.

That’s the doomsday scenario. But hope is not lost. We can solve our food problems, using innovation, investment and collaboration to improve efficiency. For example, there are tools and technologies that allow farmers to apply nutrients more precisely at lower cost, improved seeds that need less water and less nutrients, new fertilizers that are less likely to be lost to water or air, and new ways to capture nutrient rich runoff leaving farm fields. In addition, by employing environmentally sound practices, tools and technologies such as site specific nutrient management, effectively placed wetlands and buffers, and cover crops, we can meet the intertwined needs of environmental sustainability and rising food demand.

Still, time is not our friend. In the words of Institute on the Environment director Jon Foley, “If we are to boost production in these key crops to meet projected needs, we have no time to waste.”