Can we ditch intensive farming – and still feed the world?

From urban farming to drones, innovation can help fill the distance between manufacturing and consumption Why can we want to grow more food? Food manufacturing worldwide should upward push via half in the next 30 years to maintain a world inhabitants anticipated to top 10 billion by 2050.

Compared with 2010, an additional 7,400tn calories shall be needed a year in 2050. If food manufacturing increases alongside current strains, that will require a landmass two times the area of India, file published in December via the World Resources Institute on the “food gap” between present production and rising consumption.

By: Fiona Harvey

So we want to to find extra land to cultivate then?

Bringing extra land beneath agricultural manufacturing is one answer to filling this gap, nevertheless it cannot remedy the issue on my own. Finding that quantity of land in suitable prerequisites would spell the top for most of the earth’s remaining forests, peatlands and wild areas, and release the carbon stored in them, hastening climate change.

Intensive farming has already had a huge impact on biodiversity and the surroundings worldwide. Pesticides, that have helped boost cereal and fruit production, have additionally killed bees and myriad species of insects in large numbers.

Fertilisers that have improved deficient soils have additionally had accidental damaging consequences. The greatest ever maritime “dead zone” was once discovered in the Gulf of Mexico remaining 12 months, the results of fertiliser and manure from the meat industry working off the land. Chemical fertilisers also contribute immediately to climate trade, during the greenhouse gasoline nitrous oxide, and to air air pollution via ammonia.

Chinese farm workers sort out leeks at an natural farm at the outskirts of Beijing. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

So what are the other solutions?

So what are the opposite solutions?

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the arena’s leading frame charged with care of our future meals supply, has referred to as this year for “transformative change in our food systems”.

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The most obvious alternative to industrialised intensive farming in the developed international is natural farming. The label natural, or bio, is a well-recognized one in many supermarkets, but makes up only 2% of meals gross sales in the UK and about 5.five% in the USA.

Organic farmers should adhere to strict rules on how they develop their plants and lift their farm animals. These come with the use of antibiotics on animals handiest when vital, cutting out chemical fertilisers and insecticides nearly completely in favour of natural choices comparable to manure and wood ash as fertilisers and plant-derived insecticides, and managing land to offer habitats for natural world.

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Rob Percival, head of coverage at the Soil Association, says organic farming can feed the sector, if consumption patterns are adjusted to inspire those that can have the funds for meat to devour much less of it. “We need an urgent shift in both production and consumption if we’re to avert the worst consequences of climate change, including a dietary shift towards less and better meat,” he says.

“Livestock grazing on pasture can support soil health and carbon sequestration, and manure can provide soil fertility for other crops.”

He adds that the productiveness of natural farming is bigger than previously concept, “and when the environmental and other damage caused by high energy and chemical inputs in non-organic farming are factored in, organic food is cheaper for society and better for the planet”.

But isn’t natural a burden for farmers?

For many farmers, the investment and time had to meet natural requirements may be a stretch, but there are ways to move against extra sustainable farming without organic certification.

Agroecology is the name given to a large range of farming techniques that search to minimise the environmental impact of farming. It encompasses organic farming, however is informal and does not require certification and inspection.

“It is about using natural systems,” says Vicki Hird, food and farming campaigner at Sustain, an NGO. “Reducing the use of artificial chemicals, such as fertilisers and pesticides is an important part of it. Looking closely at the soil and other conditions, nourishing the soil, taking account of the natural pest cycles, natural predators and crop cycles.”

She argues that agroecology may well be extensively followed as an alternative choice to damaging industrialised farming. Farmers can sow vegetation corresponding to clover as quilt to suppress weeds and return organic topic to the soil, and rotate vegetation, including greens reminiscent of legumes that repair nitrogen. It requires shut consideration to the land itself and the plants, quite than the standard mode of farming which is to plant cash crops on the highest yield imaginable.

“Diversity is the key,” says Hird. “Having these huge monocultures does not lend itself to being managed in a natural way, and can damage biodiversity.”

Diversifying into heritage plants, equivalent to older forms of fruit and vegetables and a greater diversity of grains than the current few strains of wheat which are the norm in extensive agriculture, too can yield advantages. These crops have their very own benefits, together with herbal resistance to sure illnesses, pests or prerequisites.

“You might get a lower yield [by these methods],” Hird concedes, “but you get a higher level of nutrients in the food produced.”

What about permaculture?

Some farmers cross additional, and include ideas corresponding to permaculture and biodynamics. The rules of permaculture contain working out the relationships between vegetation and the use of them in mixtures, while reusing any waste merchandise, ceaselessly as fertiliser.

Biodynamics takes a different way, following the precepts of Rudolf Steiner and incorporating a non secular side, as an example in some circumstances aligning planting and harvesting to lunar calendars.

Peatlands, which around the world have been grossly degraded, can be managed organically through paludiculture. This calls for re-wetting dried-out peatlands and having a look to choice plants that grow well there, including forestry and medicinal crops corresponding to sphagnum moss, and permitting animals to graze.

And city farming?

Urban farming can deliver food – or no less than some fresh produce – successfully to dense populations with out the greenhouse fuel emissions and nutrient loss related to transporting it throughout lengthy distances. Already, city farming produces about a fifth of the arena’s food.

There are currently greater than 3,000 urban farming schemes in London by myself. These carry an echo of the “market gardens” and dairies of the Victorian era, when small vegetable farms have been sited in or near cities and cows have been stored in green places in towns for fresh milk.

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The cows of Hyde Park, shelling out fresh milk to Londoners, were a well-known sight till the first world warfare; in the close to future, look out for hipsters consuming smoothies from the underground farms of Shoreditch.

These sound a bit of area of interest. Don’t commercial farms produce many of the international’s meals?

No. There are greater than 570m farms international; greater than 90% are run by an individual or circle of relatives and depend totally on family labour. They produce about 80% of the sector’s food.

Small farmers shall be key to the transition, says Ronald Vargas, soil and land officer at the FAO. Many small farmers are deficient and insecure, however FAO considers funding in smallholder manufacturing “the most urgent and secure and promising means of combating hunger and malnutrition, while minimising the ecological impact of agriculture”.

How can generation and innovation help?

There is no scarcity of innovation and tech to help beef up efficiencies and yields – on business farms and smallholdings. GPS, drones and fine-grained knowledge on topography, soils and different facets of farmland to allow farmers to focus on specific spaces with fertilisers, pesticides and water, instead of blanket spraying.

For instance, Olam, a global agribusiness that produces cocoa, coffee, sugar, cotton and other vegetation, makes use of real-time tracking on its plantations to finely pass judgement on fertiliser quantities and keep away from the desire for the pre-emptive use of insecticides. Its almond trees in Australia are fitted with sensors to observe exactly how a lot water each tree needs, and when.

For family farmers in the growing world, cellphones are revolutionising what’s imaginable. They have given farmers in far off areas get admission to to equipment corresponding to weather forecasts, marketplace costs, yield knowledge and practical recommendation. GPS is also letting them track their produce after it leaves the farm.

Drones and robots would possibly seem futuristic but are already in use, turning in focused insecticides and picking out damaged or diseased plants before they are able to infect others round them.

In parts of the sector where area is at a top class, vertical farming is catching on. This refers back to the observe of stacking vegetation, typically greens, in shallow boxes in layers, which is able to reach any peak available. It not simplest saves on house, however may also be managed to make use of water and energy extra successfully, as water can be pumped to the top and allowed to go with the flow down through gravity.

Some programs use hydroponics, by which the crops are immersed in water containing mineral answers, in place of soil. Temperatures can also be carefully controlled, water reused, and nutrients recycled. Software systems can regulate the supply mechanisms and track how the crops are faring.

Our new-found skills to regulate mild, temperature, air and other environmental components open up new vistas for farming. Underground rising was once reserved for mushrooms and niche crops reminiscent of forced rhubarb, grown in huge warehouses.

If LEDs can take where of sunlight, a a ways better number of vegetation can thrive in those conditions, making now not only rooftops however basements and disused underground areas from worked-out mines to old railway strains probably viable venues for rising short-cycle foodstuffs.

What next?

Our reliance on synthetic fertiliser and extensive farming tactics didn’t happen in a single day, but took a long time. Along the best way, those methods revolutionised farming and enabled massive inhabitants enlargement and economic growth. We now have a wealth of medical proof that displays that proceeding down the similar path would risk runaway climate trade, the extinction of species essential to human life, pollution of our water and air, and the demise of our soils.

“Industrial agriculture exploits the available natural resources of our planet to an untenable and unsustainable extent,” says Vargas of the FAO. “The basic strategy to replace human labour with farm machinery, agrochemicals and fossil energy is a dead end in times of climate change, dwindling oil reserves and over-exploited natural resources.”

Experts say a second revolution is now wanted, that will surround not simply our rising strategies but intake habits and our complete meals financial system. This must contain farmers, shops, governments and customers. In ultimate century’s farming revolution, only one long term was presented: industrialisation. For this century, there can be a plurality of alternatives, and mixtures of new and historical generation, and all have their place.

“There is not one huge conceptual change where you do everything differently and everything will be OK,” says Tim Searchinger of Princeton University and the World Resources Institute. “There is not one single answer. There are lots and lots of things we can and need to do.”

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