Sustainable agriculture: can it be achieved by 2050?

Sir Gordon Conway serving as a mediator at Borlaug 100.

Sir Gordon Conway serving as a mediator at Borlaug 100. Photo by Kathryn Ingerslew

By Kathryn Ingerslew

CIUDAD OBREGON, Mexico – Sir Gordon Conway from the Imperial College in London, U.K., highlighted difficulties achieving world food security using sustainable agriculture.

Conway addressed several challenges to food security including increasing and volatile food prices, approximately one billion people chronically hungry (including 180 million children under the age of 5 that are malnourished), and the necessity to increase food production 70-100% by 2050.

In addition to these challenges, the per capita income of many countries including China is increasing. With higher income, individuals have the opportunity to purchase and consume more meat. To produce one pound of meat, seven to eight pounds of grain are needed, which puts a greater strain on crop production.

Conway emphasizes, “We must produce more with less.”

Wheat yield is globally plateauing, so increases in yield become more critical as population rises. Researchers need to discover how to most efficiently utilize inputs, minimize greenhouse gas emissions, increase the natural capital and environmental services of the land, and strengthen the resilience of crops to extreme weather.

Conway adds a distinction, “We must produce more with less, but sustainably.”

Sustainable precision farming in the United Kingdom, he said, has been implemented by identifying areas of nutrient deficiency and equipping tractors with a global positioning system (GPS) to pinpoint areas of necessary input, and only those areas. This reduces the use of fertilizer and its opportunity to contaminate local water systems.

Agroforestry principles can also be used to produce more sustainable agriculture. Deep root systems of walnut and poplar trees, for instance, bring nutrients and water from previously unavailable sources to crops, such as wheat.

Sustainable genetic intensification can also be used. By identifying genes responsible for traits such as nodule formation that allows plants to access nitrogen for better growth, and thus less fertilizer use, is an important sustainable goal, Conway said.

Lastly, sustainable socio-economic practices need to be developed. Farmers need solid infrastructure, especially in places like Africa. They need regulated seed and fertilizer labels. And, farmer associations can help link them to global markets to compete and sell their products at appropriate prices.

These sustainable agriculture practices, Conway said, can contribute to food security for a  growing world population.


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