The United Nations estimates that the global population passed seven billion on October 31. Demographers estimate that 2.3 billion more people will be on the planet by 2050. Will there be sufficient food, fiber, renewable energy, and healthy, productive ecosystems to support basic human needs? How will climate change affect agriculture, forestry, and natural ecosystems in the years ahead? A bigger and better farm bill will be needed to address these challenges.
The changing climate will be a critical, complicating factor as the world tries to meet the needs of a growing population. An Oct. 24 Reuters article surveys some of the latest issues in crop and climate studies. Climate change is already redistributing fresh water resources around the planet, delivering too much in some regions and too little in others, while reducing ice packs upon which hundreds of millions depend for water during dry times. It is also redistributing and increasing heat in prime crop-producing regions, putting stress on agricultural production and natural ecosystems, reducing overall productivity. (See D.B. Lobell, et al., “Climate Trends and Global Crop Production Since 1980”)
Climate change has been caused mainly by the world’s increasing use of fossil fuels and also by the destruction over the last two centuries of carbon-storing natural ecosystems, in order to produce food, feed, fiber, and energy and make room for cities. These activities have also depleted and degraded other environmental support systems upon which we depend. The task ahead is thus to stop or sequester greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, store more carbon in plants and soils, and restore damaged ecosystems - while also meeting the needs of a growing human population. This will require developing new ways to sustainably produce more food, fiber, bioenergy, biological diversity, carbon sequestration, and ecosystem services - all at the same time, and all from the same land base.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates the world will have to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 in order to feed an additional 2.3 billion people. An international team of scientists released a report Oct. 12, “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” with a five-part strategy to “double food production while greatly reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture.” The strategy includes “halting agricultural expansion, closing yield gaps on underperforming lands, increasing crop efficiency, shifting diets, and reducing waste.”
Having access to adequate energy supplies is also key to human development. Without fossil fuels in the future, much of that energy will need to come from the land, as well, in the form of sustainable biomass energy. Another FAO report, Making Integrated Food-Energy Systems Work for People and Climate: An Overview, describes how this might be done.
Isn’t this what a farm bill should be about – assuring future food, energy, and environmental security? More critical now than ever, the nation needs well-funded research and development to advance integrated, sustainable agriculture, forestry and bioenergy systems, expanded conservation programs, improved and expanded risk management, and expanded education and extension services at home and abroad. Unfortunately, these priorities are being lost in the House and Senate Agriculture Committees’ rush to produce a farm bill spending plan that will meet fiscal deficit-reduction goals. There has been no opportunity for careful deliberation and public debate concerning the critical challenges facing agriculture. Clearly, the fiscal deficit is not the only deficit - or even the biggest – that our nation and world face in the decades ahead.
For further perspective, see the May 2011 joint Position Statement on Climate Change from the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America for more on this challenge.