GLOBAL agriculture requires a radical shift akin to a military about-face sooner than most people realise, in order to feed an exploding population while preventing dire social and environmental outcomes.
That was the stirring message delivered by World Bank Group vice president and Special Envoy for Climate Change Rachel Kyte who was lead speaker at the Crawford Fund's annual conference in Canberra last week.
Ms Kyte said the world faced a fundamental and daunting challenge on how to nutritiously feed a rapidly growing population in “uncertain times”.
She said to feed and nourish the 9 billion people who are expected to inhabit the planet by 2050 farmers must produce as much food as they have over the past 8000 years, but “without destroying or taking a hefty toll on the environment”.
Global nutrition is failing
However, the world is already failing to feed today's population, she said. One in eight people suffer from chronic hunger and more than 1 billion people - the majority women and children - are undernourished.
Ms Kyte said most of these undernourished people live in Africa and South Asia - two regions of the world particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and urbanizing at an unprecedented rate.
Her speech to agricultural heavyweights outlined a range of future and immediate challenges from global food waste to global warming. She said those challenges, spurred on by a growing population with a rising middle class hungry for meat, “are leading us down a dangerous path”.
“Unless we chart a new course, we will find ourselves staring volatility and disruption in the food system in the face - not in 2050, not in 2040, but potentially within the next decade,” she said.
“A business-as-usual approach to agriculture is no longer an option. It will not enable us to feed and nourish the world's growing population, nor to protect the planet.
“To chart a new course we first need to face the fact that agriculture and land use change are responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
“They have to move from being a part of the problem to the core of the solution.
“That doesn't mean that mitigation should come at the expense of production. In fact, I'm suggesting the opposite.
“I am talking about increased efficiency leading to lower emissions per calorie or kilo of food.”
A new agricultural paradigm
Ms Kyte said a new global agricultural paradigm would involve an integrated, holistic approach that enabled new food systems to be built where nutrition, climate change and sustainability come together and feed an increasingly urbanized population.
“At the heart of this solution is what we term ‘climate-smart agriculture’ - an approach that refutes the idea that preserving vital natural resources, reducing carbon emissions, and nourishing people is a zero-sum game,” she said.
“It offers farmers a future, a path through uncertainty.
“Climate-smart agriculture offers a triple win: increased productivity, improved resilience, and greater climate change mitigation.
“Climate-smart agriculture combines sustainable intensification, producing more and better food with fewer resources, with a landscapes approach, so that progress on farms does not come at the expense of forests, streams, and biodiversity - the loss of which will impact farmers' productivity and resilience down the line.
“The reality is if we continue to fund crop expansion on the one hand, and natural resources conservation on the other, outside of a landscape approach, we will cancel ourselves out.”
Ms Kyte said obesity was generally considered a rich-country problem.
But according to the FAO the number of overweight and obese people in developing countries was 904 million which has more than tripled since 1980, overtaking the number of malnourished people (842 million).
She said a study published in The Lancet earlier this month found that one-third of the world's population was now overweight or obese and 62 per cent of them live in developing countries.
Meanwhile global cities are growing at “breakneck speed” with 70 million people moving into urban areas in developing countries each year, she said.
“In the space of 30 years, 2 billion people will move to urban areas in emerging economies, doubling the global urban population,” she said.
“Built-up urban areas will increase by 1.2 million square kilometres; which is nearly triple the global urban land area in 2000.”
But Ms Kyte said as urban people become increasingly affluent, their food preferences change rapidly which meant they would eat more meat.
“In low and middle-income countries, meat consumption is projected to grow 75pc from 2005 to 2050, reaching 30 kilograms per person per year,” she said.
“This growing demand has major environmental consequences.
“For every one kilo of change in demand for meat, up to 10 kilos of additional feed is required, intensifying pressure on crop lands and forests and increasing emissions.
“A CGIAR-funded study found that beef and dairy cattle account for 77 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock - but animals in the developing world require more food to produce a kilo of protein than do livestock in wealthy countries.
“This raises questions about how to balance food wants and needs with those of the environment and how to balance individual choice with costs to the community.”
Ms Kyte said big business, small farmers and government policymaker must all take responsibility for creating a food system that was climate-smart, people-focused and planet friendly.
“The world's future security is at stake,” she said.