Could sustainable agriculture solve the world food problem?
The results of a recent study published in the journal Nature Geoscience argue that the world could feed an additional 825 million people simply by regulating which crops should be grown and in which area of the planet.
Over the next few decades due to population growth, richer diets and the use of biofuels, it is expected that agricultural demand will increase considerably but, with climate change and as global aquifers become depleted, the water resources available for agriculture will also decrease.
The large study carried out by a team of scientists from Columbia University, of the Virginia University and of the Politecnico di Milano is the first to attempt to address both the needs of food production and the sustainability of environmental resources on a global scale at the same time.
The American and Italian researchers, led by the coordinator Kyle Davis, they examined 14 crops that make up 72% of all agricultural plants grown worldwide (peanuts, sugar beet, sugar cane, rapeseed, sunflowers, wheat, maize, millet, oil palm, roots, rice, soy, sorghum and tubers) and proposed new crop maps that would allow produce 10% more calories and 19% more protein and of reduce groundwater consumption by 12% and rainwater by 14%.
Practically undertaking a path of sustainable agriculture on a global scale with the redistribution of crops, as proposed by researchers, 825 million more people could be fed without the need for massive technological investments but making the most of the planet's resources available.
The crops whose production should be decreased globally are those of rice, wheat, millet and sugar cane while the cultivation of peanuts, roots, sorghum and tubers should be increased which require less water and have a higher calorie and protein content per hectare.
The redistribution of crops would reduce the demand for water for agricultural production in 42 countries by at least 20%, many of which are already subjected to significant water stress, such as Australia, India, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa and would generate an increase of more than 20% in the production of calories or proteins in another 63 countries, including Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya and Spain, increasing the food self-sufficiency of many states that depend heavily on food imports for food.
The proposed crop distribution model would not result in a loss of crop diversity or soil nutrients, which could otherwise make agriculture more vulnerable to droughts, pests and other shocks, nor does it require large technological investments, which not all agriculture would be able to support.
Unfortunately, however, the results of the study are really only a starting point and not a final solution because the research deliberately does not consider the potential cultural or political barriers, food preferences or consumption patterns that influence the market's supply and demand policy.
The research coordinator Kyle Davis believes that the first step that all countries should take in the near future is to develop state programs to manage the economic, social and environmental aspects of food safety with the aim of changing the preferences of farmers and consumers and create "tailor-made" sustainable agriculture solutions to increase global food productivity and counter the scourge of world hunger.
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Food for everyone without irreparably altering the balance of Nature. It's this one the biggest challenge that awaits our generation and those to come. At the moment the situation looks rather critical with one insufficient food security for all the inhabitants of the planet and the climatic changes that increasingly disrupt the ecosystem. According to a study, conducted by researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research(Pik), but there is still time to change but it is necessary to act as soon as possible . Specifically, it is necessary totally rethink food production which, at present, largely damages the Earth, causing the loss of biodiversity, the destruction of ecosystems and severe water stress.
At the base of the food chain, the algae they represent the fulcrum of the table of the future. They grow underwater in practically all environmental conditions, temperatures and at all latitudes, they could be found very easily and without taking valuable agricultural space away from vegetables. Their food potential is above all indirect: they can be used to produce biofuel (such as corn, beets and sugar cane). With expanses of algae, land would be saved to be used to produce more food.
Another unattractive food to the eye but with a bright future are the worms. These crawling creatures are recommended by the FAO as a sustainable alternative to meat: high-protein and low-fat have an advantage over traditional farm animals. They are small, and this facilitates their large-scale production. They could be reared in large quantities, feeding billions of people with zero impact given the methane emitted by a single bovine. The problem is getting used to the idea. There is even a European Union plan with a related allocation of 3 million euros for each member country that promotes insect-based menus (it would be nice if it were also promoted in the rich buffets of European commissions, but I doubt it). After all, 1400 species of insects are already consumed in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
But that's not all, indiscriminate fishing has reduced the fish fauna to the bone and gelatinous varieties are gaining momentum in the new menus jellyfish which have multiplied by replacing the ecological niches left empty by fish. Without tuna and sardines, jellyfish are free to proliferate in abundance and someone at the sea will have already noticed. However, there are those who do not give up and look for alternatives to worms, grasshoppers and jellyfish under their teeth, such as Zhikang Li, a Chinese botanist specialized in crosses and grafts between plants, who has discovered a series of ultra-resistant rice varieties, which they tolerate floods, droughts, pests and diseases well and produce more grains and all this without the use of GMOs. He crossed 250 varieties of rice from all over the globe, obtaining a plant that if it were widespread in Asia could feed a hundred million more people.
Then there are the GMOs with extra doses of vitamins and ultra-resistant crops but with what risks to human health, animals and the crops themselves? This would open a significant chapter given the disputes already underway between GMOs and Anti-GMOs. The fact is that a 150gr hamburger, along its production chain, consumes 2400 liters of water and that the intestinal emissions of cattle and other farm animals cause more than 20% of the carbon dioxide of human origin emitted into the atmosphere. It is therefore not surprising that there is someone who is trying to create synthetic burgers using artificial meat created in vitro such as Mark Post, a professor at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands who uses pork stem cells to try to produce meat in vitro, thus obtaining only a strip of whitish muscle to which blood and artificial fat would then be added. The fact is that the synthetic burger should be ready by the end of the year and the meat retailers would have already lined up. Moving on to fish, here the exploitation of fish has reached unsustainable limits with 75% of the reserves overfished and some species such as tuna, sharks and swordfish decreased by 90% in 100 years.
Another interesting project is that of Charlie Paton, a British who for 20 years has invented a technology to produce sea salt water greenhouses which is exploited to reproduce the normal hydrogeological cycle (sea water, heated by the Sun, evaporates and then cools, condenses and returns to Earth in the form of rain) in a controlled environment, where cultivated plants can benefit from the fresh water obtained in this way. Other projects are based on this concept such as the Sahara Forest Project, which should start in 2015. In conclusion, FAO itself promotes a diet based on insects such as Coleoptera, caterpillars, bees, wasps and grasshoppers, which are already regularly consumed by a couple of billion people and that would also generate new jobs for those who should raise them. Of course the Europeans and above all we Italians should get used to eating a plate of grasshoppers instead of tagliatelle but so it is, if anything, the point is another and that is that FAO has blatantly failed in its attempt to improve the situation in the countries where it reigns. malnutrition. In 1990 there were 800 million hungry, three years ago there were 1 billion and 20 million with a growth in malnourished greater than the growth of the world population. In 2009 it was estimated that of over 780 million dollars that FAO had to fight against malnutrition to spend by 2011, it spent only 90 while 200 it spent on employee meetings !! who pocket the UN commissions to fight hunger. So, apparently, as usual those who preach well .. Have a good lunch
Potatoes to grow on Mars, plants raised by robots, drones that monitor the fields, orange peels that become fuel for cars, food produced in the laboratory or directly from the printer. These are just some of the many "news" (which multiplied in the Expo era) circulating in the press and on the Internet to describe the new frontiers of agriculture of the future.
What is real in all this, apart from the emphatic and sensationalist tones with which certain experiments are presented (and which are paired with news of the opposite sign that tell agriculture with the yardstick of scandal or nostalgia for good time gone)?
The most truthful aspect of the matter is that agriculture, like it or not, is going through a phase of profound evolution due to objective pushes that come from outside. The climate, first, the demographic growth, the scarcity of new fertile land and of water. In summary: the need to optimize production factors, feed everyone, limit pollution and, if possible, also earn something. If the past green revolution was made possible by chemistry, today the new green revolution will have to build on technology. And the big names in the sector (for example seed multinationals), but not only (think of Google), are working hard to take up the challenge and development opportunities in the field.
On the blog I will try to better frame the topic, focusing on individual aspects of innovation, in the meantime I would like to start talking about soilless agriculture, one of the frontiers on which more resources are being invested.
The first question is: why? As I said above, the fertile land at our disposal is less and less, it is increasingly expensive, disputed and in some cases it is over-exploited and therefore less productive. Then there is the fact that more and more people live and will live in large urban agglomerations, so bringing the countryside closer to the city has an ecological value.
The idea of moving crops into buildings is not new. The term vertical farming it was coined in 1915 by Gilbert Ellis Bailey and the first example of a vertical farm dates back to the 1950s, when a hydroponic tower was built in Armenia. The world debut took place in 1964 at the Vienna International Horticulture Exhibition, where a glass tower used for the cultivation of flowers was presented.
However, it was in the 1990s that a current of thought began to take hold, which saw the solution to the problem of food sustainability in a new urban and hyper-technological agriculture. In 1992, architect Ken Yeang conceived a multi-storey building - Bioclimatic Skyscraper - capable of integrating apartments and crops, thanks to large windows and unification of air conditioning. From there the current movement of the Vertical Farm, led by Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor.
A couple of years ago, the Swedish town of Linkoping made headlines for the skyscraper Plantagon, a 54-meter-high giant converted to produce salads, spinach, celery, mustard and vegetables. How does it work? The sown plants should reside on the upper floors, which would then be moved downwards according to their degree of ripeness, until they touch the ground at the time of sale. The productivity, they swear, is very high: up to 300 kg of harvest per square meter. Thus the Swedish skyscraper in the shape of a "sail" - to better capture sunlight - could ensure sufficient production to feed 350,000 people.
In addition to the Scandinavian country, similar projects are popping up in more parts of the world - the USA, China, Korea, Japan, the Netherlands. Among these we mention Farmed Here, a three-story mega vertical farm, built in the suburbs of Chicago in a former warehouse of 27 thousand square meters. It currently produces vegetables and should employ 200 people. Also in the US, more precisely in Buffalo, we find Green Spirit Farms agricultural building that contains 17 million seedlings of lettuce, spinach, strawberries, peppers, basil. In Newark, New Jersey, she was born instead Aero Farms one of the largest farms in the world obtained from a disused factory of over 21 thousand square meters. In Japan it is in operation Nuvege, a vertical farm built in a former industrial building, capable of producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day, reducing waste and the use of water. The plants are in fact raised by 17 thousand LED lights and watered by water that is continuously recycled.
Also from Japan comes the Vegetable Factory, the first automated greenhouse (again for lettuce production) in the world. 3500 square meters, illuminated by LEDs, managed (almost) entirely by robots, which will follow every phase of the plant's growth, except for sowing. New workers should help lower production costs. The greenhouse is expected to go into operation in the middle of next year.
Not in the sky, but in the soil
But there are not only skyscrapers or former industrial buildings converted into food factories: in London, 33 meters deep, the first underground farm was born, the Growing Underground. The greenhouses have been created inside old air-raid shelters, where the temperature remains constant at 16 degrees, allowing you to grow a wide range of vegetables in every season of the year. Here, too, the production process is based on hydroponics and a complex system of LED lights. The products are distributed at almost zero km, serving the British capital and its surroundings.
Not in the sky, not in the soil, but in the sea
We finally arrive in Italy and we do it with a story with an almost science fiction flavor. The Nemo's Garden, the Garden of Nemo (26 types of different plants), grows in Liguria, off the coast of Noli, in the Savona area, 8 meters below the surface of the water and a hundred meters from the coast. The project, also presented at Expo, was born from the idea of Sergio Gamberini, engineer and diving expert, who saw the sea as the ideal place to produce food. Why? Constant and high temperature (26 °), high humidity (83%), absence of parasites and insects. The garden consists of biospheres (transparent plastic spheres) anchored to the seabed and containing air, monitored by a control tower.
Surely I have forgotten some examples or projects, but in the end the principle on which these companies are based is the same: hydroponic cultivation (essentially without soil, the plant is irrigated with a nutrient solution composed of water and mineral salts which, ground, is part of a closed circuit for subsequent reuse allowing for recirculation and savings), a closed and protected environment, therefore almost completely protected from parasites and insects and from thermal changes, artificial lighting. The limit? For now, without a doubt, the cost, even considering the guaranteed yield and the reduction of waste and treatments. According to the Accademia dei Georgofili, the idea is undoubtedly fascinating but not entirely sustainable. Conventional agriculture remains, to date, the most efficient way to produce food.
The research offers hope in the face of troubling prospects such as the one outlined on a recent day of study since Riccardo Valentini, climatologist of the Euro-Mediterranean Center for Climate Change, considered one of the most influential scientists on the planet by the annual Thomson Reuters ranking: "Future scenarios, based on the current growth trend of greenhouse gas emissions, indicate a reduction in production by 2050 world agricultural sector of about 8%, against a demand for food that will increase by 56% "he explained speaking at a seminar organized byassociation of environmental journalism Greenaccord. "The combination of climate change and population growth will make about 2.5 billion people, out of an estimated 9.3 billion overall, without sufficient food nutrition."
Problems that shake the veins in the wrists. And the solution of which, instead of through drastic and immediate changes in the development and consumption processes, is often entrusted to the two most popular ways: the extensification and intensification of agriculture. In the first case, thus increasing the amount of cultivated land, with direct negative social and environmental consequences - already experienced - in terms of deforestation is land grabbing by large multinationals to the detriment of small farmers in the second case by aiming to increase crop yields, where there is still room for improvement: which is costly on an economic level, and involves an increase in the use of pesticides and the construction of new hydraulic infrastructures.
There are a few days left to “CALL to COLLECTION” and most of the program is now completed
Everything will take place Sunday 25 November to FELT (BL) at the bowling green site at "Forum Boarium”(Where viale 14 agosto 1866 and via Peschiera converge) to view the map click here
Inside the bowling alley (therefore in a covered and heated environment) there will be a series of realities, groups, associations .. citizens who will exhibit and exchange ancient seeds, who will propose workshops, itineraries, initiatives
linked to sustainability, organic, biodiversity ..
Opening of the day at 10 am
At about that time the first "walk" to get to know Feltre will also start (from the bowling green). This walk will be preceded by a historical, architectural and landscape story of the city by the "La Fenice" association
The morning walk includes a walk through the streets of the city
In the early afternoon instead (at about 2 pm) the excursion will instead include a visit to the beautiful Theater "de la Sena" (the little phoenix) and a city museum
To complete the interesting overview of the city that hosts us, the intervention of the geologist Emiliano Oddone focused on the important UNESCO recognition of the Dolomites, a World Heritage Site.
We remind you that the day "called to harvest" was included in the National Program of the UNESCO Week of Education for Sustainable Development 2012 (dedicated this year to the theme Mother Earth: Food, Agriculture and Ecosystem).
(to read a report on the issue click here)
Obviously, both the excursions and admission to the day are FREE !!
Inside the Bocciodrono we will find instead:
(by clicking on the name of the association it is possible to view their blogs or sites)
During the day, in addition to the excursions, there will be a series of workshops for children and adults (ade s. Mauro Flora will teach children to cultivate ancient seeds even on the balcony of the house)
There will be no lack of music.
around 2.30 pm there will be an interesting conference on the LAND-GRABBING issue (hoarding of public lands) to which the public management (with social gardens etc.) advanced by the Municipality of Feltre will be proposed
Speakers: Valter Bonan (council. agriculture common goods and common participation of Feltre) Eliana Caramelli (green spaces) Mattia Donadel (Option Zero) and anyone who wants ..
in fact the OPEN MICROPHONE is available for the whole day
There will be photographic exhibitions, presentations of Solidarity Economy Districts and an important initiative linked to the PARTICIPATED SELECTION OF ANCIENT BELLUNESE SEEDS (with the support of the well-known genetisca Salvatore Ceccarelli) ...
but also a lot of conviviality
Hemp: the future in our hands. On November 28, 2012, the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Bari "Aldo Moro" will host a seminar on the cultivation of hemp and the use of the aforementioned plant in various sectors. Hemp is an ancient crop, of which Italy was the second largest producer in the world until the early 1900s, which supplies raw materials with a low environmental impact that can be used in the textile, food, paper, pharmaceutical, natural cosmetics, green building sectors. . The use of this resource is accompanied by the reflection, now necessary and necessary, on the concepts of eco-sustainability and biocompatibility. The seminar will take place in the Aula Magna, via Amendola 166 / A, starting at 17.30. Claudio Natile, President of the Canapuglia Association, Dr. Gianpaolo Grassi, principal researcher of the Rovigo CRA, Prof. Giuseppe De Mastro, professor of herbaceous crops at the Department of agro-environmental and territorial sciences will speak. At the end of the meeting, there will be a tasting of organic hemp-based foods. In addition, educational credits will be awarded to students who will participate in the seminar.