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UN report: The world’s farms stretched to ‘a breaking point’

Posted on 24 January 2022 by dana1981

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections

Almost 10% of the 8 billion people on earth are already undernourished with 3 billion lacking healthy diets, and the land and water resources farmers rely on stressed to “a breaking point.” And by 2050 there will be 2 billion more mouths to feed, warns a new report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

For now, farmers have been able to boost agricultural productivity by irrigating more land and applying heavier doses of fertilizer and pesticides. But the report says these practices are not sustainable: They have eroded and degraded soil while polluting and depleting water supplies and shrinking the world’s forests. The FAO report discusses some important climate change impacts, such as changing distribution of rainfall, the suitability of land for certain crops, the spread of insects and other pests, and shorter growing seasons in regions affected by more intense droughts. While not the sole source of obstacles facing global agriculture, the report makes clear that climate change is further stressing agricultural systems and amplifying global food production challenges.

The report also offers hope that the problems are solvable: Water degradation can be reversed by turning to smart planning and coordination of sustainable farming practices and by deploying new innovative technologies. More sustainable agriculture can also help fight climate change: For instance, the report notes that wiser use of soils can help sequester some of the greenhouse gasses currently emitted by agricultural activities. 

Drastic changes in climate will require regions to adjust the crops they grow. For example, the report predicts that much cereal production will probably have to move north, to Canada and northern Eurasia. Brazil and northern Africa may have a harder time growing coffee, but it may get easier in eastern Africa. A changing climate “may bring opportunities for multiple rainfed cropping, particularly in the tropics and subtropics.” And for areas “where the climate becomes marginal for current staple and niche crops, there are alternative annual and perennial tree crops, livestock, and soil and water management options available.”

The report recommends seed and germoplasm exchanges globally and among regions, and investments to develop crops that can withstand changes in temperature, salinity, wind, and evaporation.

The changes will not be easy, the report says, but they may be necessary to avoid widespread hunger and other catastrophes.

Extensive land and water degradation

Over the past 20 years, the global population has risen by more than 25% from just over 6 billion to nearly 8 billion people. The amount of land used to grow crops has increased by just 4% over that time, as farmers have been able to meet the growing demand for food by dramatically increasing the productivity per acre of agricultural land. They’ve done so, for example, by increasing use of diesel-fueled machinery, fertilizer, and pesticides.

But these practices have come at a price. “Human-induced degradation affects 34 percent (1,660 million hectares) of agricultural land, the FAO reports. “The treatment of soils with inorganic fertilizers to increase or sustain yields has had significant adverse effects on soil health, and has contributed to freshwater pollution induced by run-off and drainage.”

This degradation is especially extensive on irrigated farmland. Irrigation has been critical for meeting food demand because it produces two to three times as much food per acre as does rain-fed farmland. But irrigation also increases runoff of fertilizers and pesticides that can contaminate soil and groundwater.

The FAO reports also that globally, agriculture accounts for 72% of all surface and groundwater withdrawals, mainly for irrigation, which is depleting groundwater aquifers in many regions. Global groundwater withdrawals for irrigated agriculture increased by about 20% over the past decade alone.

Similarly, the quality of 13% of global soil, including 34% of agricultural land, has been degraded. This degradation has been caused by factors such as excessive fertilizer use, livestock overgrazing causing soil compaction and erosion, deforestation, and decreasing water availability.

FAO report map on global soil degradation.Map of global soil degradation. (Source: UN FAO State of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture report)

Deforestation trends offer one relatively bright spot in the FAO report. The global forested area has declined by about 1% (47 million hectares) over the past decade, but that is a significant improvement from the nearly 2% decline (78 million hectares) in the 1990s. And in the November 2021 international climate negotiations in Glasgow, 141 countries, covering 91% of global forested area, agreed to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. It remains to be seen, of course, how many reach those commitments.

Climate change is worsening food system breakdowns

Climate change exacerbates farmers’ challenges by making weather more extreme and less reliable. Extreme heat can stress crops and farm workers while increasing evaporation of water from soil and transpiration from plants, thus amplifying agricultural water demands. Here too, it’s not all bad news: Agricultural productivity is expected to increase in regions that are currently relatively cold, but decrease in places that are hotter and drier, especially as climate change exacerbates droughts.

As with others, farmers will need to adapt to the changing climate, and making those adaptations can be expensive. For example, as the primary or sole producer of many of the country’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts, California effectively acts as America’s garden. But climate change is exacerbating droughts and water shortages in the state, and farmers are struggling to adapt. About 80% of all almonds in the world are grown in California, generating $6 billion in annual revenue, but almonds are a very water-intensive crop. As a result, some farmers have been forced to tear up their lucrative almond orchards. It’s a stark reminder that “adaptation” can sound easy on paper, but in practice can sometimes be painful and costly.

Farmers and planners will need to adapt

Adaptation will nevertheless be necessary in the face of an anticipated 50% increase in food demand by 2050 (including a doubling in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa), extensive land and water quality degradation, and a changing climate. The FAO report recommends four action areas to continue to meet rising global food demand.

  • First, adopting inclusive land and water governance through improved land-use planning to guide land and water allocation and promote sustainable resources management.
  • Second, implementing integrated solutions at scale, for example by helping farmers use available resources more efficiently while minimizing the associated adverse environmental impacts and also building resilience to climate change.
  • Third, embracing innovative technologies and management like remote sensing services; opening access to data and information on crops, natural resources and climatic conditions; and improving rainwater capture and increasing soil moisture retention.
  • Fourth, investing in long-term sustainable land, soil, and water management; in restoring degraded ecosystems; and in data and information management for farmers.

Fortunately, sustainable agricultural practices can also do double duty as climate solutions. The FAO reports that 31% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agri-food systems. Sustainable farming practices like regenerative agriculture can require less diesel-fueled machinery and less reliance on soil- and water-polluting pesticides while increasing the carbon stored in farmed soils.

Solving these multiple problems will require planning and coordination, the FAO writes in the report, and “data collection needs to improve.” Again, a bright side: The technology to improve data collection already exists, and advances in agricultural research have also put other solutions within reach. What is needed now is for policymakers and planners to coordinate work with farmers to adopt more sustainable practices and adapt more quickly to the changing climate. So, while the food system is currently at a “breaking point,” these more sustainable solutions are all within reach.

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. Frankly, nothing about this is encouraging. Even the FAO estimate that agriculture produces 31% of global emissions, up from 14.5% nearly two decades ago, offers no bright spot in the picture. In our local community, trying to interest cattle farmers in Regenerative Ag has failed. Regen is good theory but nearly nobody wants to do it. Just the requirement to move cows from place to place on a rotational schedule requires another ranchhand for about every 50-100 head, plus miles of fence maintenance, water drops, etc. I find the "science" faulty and little more than another USDA attempt to salvage industrial animal agriculture from necessary extinction. Eight billion humans, shoulder to shoulder, will wrap around the planet at the Equator about a hundred times...another 2 billion by 2050 feels like a mass extinction already thoroughly underway.

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  2. Swampfox @1. On what basis do you find the science of regenerative farming  faulty?

    And what is your alternative to regenerative farming and industrial agriculture? Im scratching my head because I dont know of one. Or are you promoting vegetarianism?

    I really do wish people would spell out exactly what they are saying / promoting and stop talking in riddles. It just aggrivates me and I have no respect for it.

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  3. Why are losses of soil carbon usually avoided in reports centered on climate change, especially global warming?  To survive, we mined the element from soils with highest carbon content while thickening the "greenhouse" gas blanket, a prime indicator of global warming.  We "sequestered" the great bulk of the mine waste in basins, rivers, and the oceans.  We are highly dependent on remaining soil carbon as the element is concentrated in carbohydrates, proteins, and fatty acids. Only a few ecosystems, mostly grasslands, store carbon deep underground; deposition rates are excruciatingly slow.  I have heard estimates of 800 years per the thickness of a dime for the uppermost humic layer, and that was for tallgrass prairie, already underlain by very fertile soil   Retrieving carbon and replacing it upper layers of the soil proile where it can be used by shallow-rooted crop and forage plants would be a daughting task, but likely a much better invstment than planting trees and injecting carbon dioxide thousands of feet underground.

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  4. Nigel 

    I didn't say the science of Regen is faulty,

     I said, almost nobody will do it. Bovines have to be managed, a la the Joel Salatin (Polyface) Model. Joel uses "free" intern help on his farm to accomplish most of what an animal farmer has to do to maintain this system. His cattle farmer neighbors always point out that substantial extra labor will be required and none of them are willing to forgo chemicals and manufactured fertilizers. Plant farmers won't do it either. The entire Midwest soil situation shows that the only utility of soil is to hold the plant erect, the non-man-made soil attributes are seriously depleted...all across the great plains. The Oglalla Acquifer is being mined well beyond its recharge rate, forcing circular irrigation wells to have to go deeper to mine what's left of this water resource. Unless we command plant and animal farmers to make painful changes, which we won't do, the current situation across the globe will not change. I'm not a vegetarian. I work for Joel Salatin. Elimination of Industrial Animal Agriculture will buy us a lot of time while we wrestle with the fossil fuels problems, and while we tackle the FF problem, we have an adequate alternate food supply...from plants.

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  5. Nigelj

    Since you are a frequent contributor to SkepSci, we should visit. I live in Virginia. If you are within 2-300 miles of Lexington, VA. I will bring a new study on Animal Ag and let you review bits of it, in confidence of course. It is in peer review and is expected to be published in early summer. You can reach me at:

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  6. Hal Kantrud @ 3:

    You seem to be making a habit of posting comments related to the carbon cycle, from a position of not really knowing what the science is saying.

    On the subject of carbon dioxide removal (CDR), the most recent IPCC report has a few useful quotes.

    From the Technical Summary (page TS-65 in the draft version from last August):

    The largest co-benefits are obtained with methods that seek to restore natural ecosystems or improve soil carbon sequestration (medium confidence).

    and from the full report (page I-114)

    CDR can be achieved through a number of measures (Chapter 5, Section 5.6, and E SRCCL). These include additional afforestation, reforestation, soil carbon management, biochar, direct air capture and carbon capture and storage (DACCS), and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

    I found that from doing a simple search for "soil carbon". Why you think this subject is being avoided is a mystery to me.

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  7. Swampfox @3 &4

    "I didn't say the science of Regen is faulty."

    Hmmm. You said "Just the requirement to move cows from place to place on a rotational schedule requires another ranchhand for about every 50-100 head, plus miles of fence maintenance, water drops, etc. I find the "science" faulty and little more than another USDA attempt to salvage industrial animal agriculture"

    I thought by this you meant regenerative agriculture, but perhaps you just mean rotational grazing? I think you lacked a little bit of clarity and its still not clear how you feel the science is faulty.

    Regarding your statement " I said, almost nobody will do it (regenerative agriculture)." Fair point. I live in New Zealand and Regenerative farming is also a small minority of farmers. However  we are starting to see some growing interest over the last five years and more farmers getting on board. However personally I doubt it will really scale up without some sort of government incentives. I know some countries pay farmers to use regenerative farming to conserve soil carbon. Australia I think.

    And I do see the same objections to to regenerative agriculture that you list.

    Its the same sort of issue with organic farming. Its still a minority of farmers in New Zealand, and it costs more to farm that way. But at least with organic farming theres a customer base prepared to pay the higher prices and certification schemes helps identify genuine organic food. In New Zealand we have no such certification scheme for regenerative agriculture. But again I doubt organic farming would take over without some sort of government incentives or rules.

    Personally I think our civilisation will have to change from industrial farming to some form of regenerative / organic farming sooner or later, but I don't subscribe to doctrinaire versions of these things, and I don't oppose every single facet of industrial agriculture. We may have to combine systems. We may keep some limited level of industrial fertilisers to maintain adequate yields and get enough farmers interested. Just my opinion of course. However the impact of industrial pesticides on insect populations is very concerning. We must find a solution to this and fast.

    Thank's for the offer to visit and review your work, but I regretfully wont take it up simply because I live in New Zealand on the other side of the world, and I probably don't have nearly enough farming and biological expertise to review your study. But I wish you all the best with your research. You should probably get in touch with Red Baron (Scott Strough) who posts comments on this website.

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  8. NigelJ, 

    Thank you for your quick return comments.  It's of novel coincidence that the research results I am citing are the product of a 4 year work authored in Australia.  It is a revision of a World Bank study conducted a little more that 13 years ago which generated a considerable amount of controversy following a number of studies on Animal Ag topics from IPCC, from (Gerber et al., 2013a)...from FAO, 2009...(Steinfeld et al., 2006a)...(Pitesky et al., 2009) and numerous others.

    Perhaps Red Baron will see this exchange and recognize my email address.

    "See" you around.


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