One of the great challenges of this young century — that must be addressed by the world’s farmers, agriculture companies, governments and NGO’s — is developing the systems, technology and infrastructure to feed the world’s growing population.
Today’s population of around 7 billion is expected to increase to about 9 billion by 2050. By this time, another 1 billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million extra tonnes of livestock products will need to be produced every year. The imperative for such agricultural growth is strongest in developing countries, where the challenge is not just to produce food but to ensure that families have access that will bring them food security.
To address this issue and keep it at the forefront of international dialogue, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has published a book entitled “State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture” (SOLAW), which deals primarily with the issues of food security pertaining to land and water resource management for crops. SOLAW argues that the world has not done enough to plan and manage the future development of land and water resources. To aid in moving the dialogue forward, the report analyzes the current status of water and land resources, current and future threats, assesses institutional responses and makes recommendations.
Trends in land, water resources
SOLAW noted that over the last 50 years the world’s land and water management rose to the task of feeding the world’s growing population. In particular, input-intensive, mechanized agriculture and irrigation have contributed to rapid increases in productivity.
The world’s agricultural production has grown between 2.5 and 3 times over the period, while the cultivated area has grown only by 12%. More than 40% of the increase in food production came from irrigated areas, which have doubled in area. Agriculture currently uses 11% of the world’s land surface for crop production, and accounts for 70% of all water withdrawn from aquifers, streams and lakes.
Today, cultivated land area per person in low income countries is less than half that in high-income countries, and its suitability for agriculture is generally lower. SOLAW noted that this is troubling given that the growth of demand for food production, as a function of population and income, is expected to be concentrated in low-income countries.
Rainfed agriculture is the world’s predominant agricultural production system but also hosts the majority of the rural poor. SOLAW noted that the large swathes of temperate cereal production in the northern hemisphere will continue to supply global markets and may even see a northward expansion, nudged by global warming. Instead, in the dry tropics and subtropics, rainfed production is held hostage by erratic precipitation.
In low to medium income countries with fast population growth, the demand for water is outstripping supply. SOLAW observed that rising demand from both agriculture and other sectors is leading to competition for water resulting in environmental stress and socio-economic tension. Where rainfall is inadequate and new water development is not feasible, agricultural production is expected to be constrained more by water scarcity than land availability.
Groundwater abstraction has provided an invaluable source of ready irrigation water but has proved almost impossible to regulate. As a result, locally intensive groundwater withdrawals are exceeding rates of natural replenishment in key cereal producing locations — in high, middle and low-income countries. Because of the dependence of many key food production areas on groundwater, declining aquifer levels and continued abstraction of non-renewable groundwater present a growing risk to local and global food production.
Land and water use in agriculture is caught in a policy trap. SOLAW noted that on one hand agricultural policies have been effective in responding to increasing demand, but on the other hand they have resulted in a set of unintended consequences, including over-application of fertilizer and pesticides and depleted groundwater storage. Equally, water policies have driven expansion of water supply and storage, but in some water-short areas, this has created excess demand and “constructed” scarcity. Low tariffs for irrigation water services have also encouraged its inefficient use.
Effective collaboration between land and water institutions has lagged behind patterns of use and consumption. Although land and water function as an integrated system, many institutions deal with them separately.
SOLAW indicated that levels of public and private investment in basic agricultural infrastructure and institutions have declined over the past two decades. Agricultural infrastructure (rural roads, irrigation schemes, storage and marketing chains) has become increasingly unresponsive to changing markets and inefficient in delivering high quality produce.
What is to come
By 2050, rising population and incomes are expected to result in a 70% increase in global demand for agricultural production. From a 2009 baseline, this will need to be a 100% increase in low and middle income countries. This implies a global annual growth rate of 1% and up to 2% in low and middle income countries. Increased production is projected to come primarily from intensification on existing cultivated land. Expansion will still be possible in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In the longer run, climate change is expected to increase the potential for expansion in some temperate areas.
Both irrigated and rainfed agriculture will need to respond to rising demand. SOLAW noted a doubling of current production could be derived from already developed land and water resources. Some further land and water resources could be diverted to crop production, but in most cases they already serve important environmental and economic functions.
SOLAW projected that most of future growth in crop production in developing countries is likely to come from intensification, with irrigation playing an increasingly strategic role through improved water services, water-use efficiency improvements, yield growth and higher cropping intensities. Both irrigated area and agricultural water use are expected to expand rather slowly.
As land and water resources scarcity becomes apparent, competition between municipal and industrial demands will intensify and intrasectoral competition will become pervasive within agriculture — between livestock, staples and non-food crops, including liquid biofuels. Municipal and industrial water demands will be growing much faster than those of agriculture and can be expected to crowd out allocations to agriculture.
To raise land and water productivity on larger irrigation schemes, an integrated modernization package of infrastructure upgrades and management system improvements is required, together with an economic environment providing undistorted incentives, manageable allocation of risk and market access.
SOLAW noted that there is also scope for improving irrigation efficiency and productivity in small-scale and informal irrigation. This requires mechanisms to ensure the availability of knowledge, technology and investment support, adapted to the local management practices and socio-economic context.
The overriding challenges global agriculture will face in the coming decades will be to produce at least 70% more food by 2050; to improve food security and livelihoods of the rural poor; to maintain the necessary ecosystem services; and to reconcile the use of land and water resources among competing uses. SOLAW affirmed that these challenges will need to be addressed together with the anticipated impacts of climate change where they have a net negative impact on agricultural production.
SOLAW concluded that these challenges will not be met unless:
• Existing agricultural practices can be transformed to reduce pressure on land and water systems.
• Negative impacts of intensive production systems are reduced markedly and increased food production is aligned with poverty alleviation, food and livelihood security diversification and the maintenance of ecosystem services.
• Negative impacts of smallholder agriculture associated with high population density, widespread poverty, and lack of secured access to land and water resources, are reduced.
• Agricultural systems at risk are addressed as a priority and progress in redressing risks is monitored.
• Investment, economic and trade policies favor sustainable agriculture and balanced rural development.
• Sustainable intensification can be implemented through integrated planning and management approaches that can be scaled up from local levels to address systems at risk and mainstream climate change mitigation and adaptation simultaneously.
SOLAW declared that the principles and practices around which major initiatives for sustainable land and water management can be built are:
• Broad adoption of participatory and pluralistic approaches to land and water management, with growing devolution and local accountability.
• Increasing investment for improvement of essential public good infrastructure related to the whole market chain from production to consumer.
• Appraisal of ecosystem services including land and water audits developed to frame planning and investment decisions.
• A review of the mandates and activities of existing global and regional organizations for land and water with the view to promote collaboration, if not integration.
• International trade agreements that favor a “green economy” approach and contribute to sustainable agriculture overall.
• Cooperative frameworks and basin-wide management institutions that can work together to optimize economic value and ensure equitable benefit sharing in international river basins.
• A dedicated fund to support sustainable land and water management by smallholders. Incentive programs such as PES for watershed management and clean water, biodiversity and sustainable production schemes could then promote adoption of sustainable land and water management practices capturing carbon and reducing negative environmental impacts.
SOLAW concludes that there is latitude for governments and the private sector including farmers to be much more proactive in enabling and promoting the general adoption of more sustainable land and water management practices. These have the potential to expand production efficiently to address food insecurity, while limiting impacts on other ecosystem values.
However, this will require profound changes in the way land and water are managed. Global and national policies will need to be aligned and institutions transformed to become genuine collaborators in applying knowledge and in responsible regulation of the use of natural resources. Business as usual, with or without some marginal adjustments, will not be enough.