1.74 | Fall 2020 | Graduate

Land, Water, Food, and Climate

SECTION 5 | The Way Forward


How can we move towards a sustainable food production system that meets human needs while protecting natural resources? What are the prospects for the future?

The agriculture of the future will evolve, as it has in the past, in a world of varied landscapes, changing climate, and diverse practices and traditions. In this world it is difficult and probably unrealistic to imagine a single common approach that will achieve sustainable food security. Our discussions have, however, revealed some general points that can serve as guidelines for the future.

Global food production will need to increase substantially in the next several decades because of growth in both population and per capita consumption. This production increase will need to take place at the same time as climate change starts to have a significant effect on regional agricultural systems. The additional production required will depend on the future human diet and, in particular, on meat consumption, which has a disproportionate impact on the demand for feed crops. If future diets in the developing world depend as much on meat as they do now in the developed world, crop production will need to increase substantially. On the other hand, if global per capita meat consumption stabilizes at a level significantly less than today’s levels in the developed world, the pressures to increase crop production will be much more manageable. It is difficult to construct policy options that will change dietary preferences. However, diet is likely to be an important part of future food security discussions.

If everyone is to have a healthy and adequate diet and if the large rural population of the developing world is to enjoy the quality of life of the developed world there will need to be a change in the way that food is produced and distributed. This is especially true in Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America where low input smallholder agriculture still dominates. All three of the agricultural systems identified in Section 4 may survive in some form but they will probably need to converge to some degree if food security is to be improved for all. This implies more consolidation of very small farms to take advantage of economies of scale and new technologies. It probably implies wider adoption of genetically engineered crops, particularly if such crops can deliver higher potential yields and are more able to tolerate climate change. It also implies the widespread use of precision agriculture methods to reduce the adverse environmental effects of inefficient water, nutrient and pesticide application as well as to bring actual yields as close as possible to potential yields. The potential of these improved technologies will only be realized for everyone if they are backed up by the capital and extension support needed to ensure that they are adopted and successfully applied by smallholders as well as larger commercial farms.

In the final sessions of this course we will try to visualize a “Best Way Forward”, considering the information and viewpoints provided by our readings. The following outline provides a start for this discussion:

  1. Pursue a gradual transition to a diverse but more sustainable agricultural system that is able to accommodate regional differences while using trade to reconcile the uneven distribution of the natural resources needed to grow food.
  2. Encourage hybrid management solutions, such as integrated pest management, that combine traditional methods for reducing crop stress, encouraging diversity, and maintaining healthy soils with modern technology that improves resource and labor efficiency. Technologies such as genetic engineering, synthetic fertilizer production, and mechanization need to accommodate regional differences in resource availability, income, and culture. Progress towards an efficient and sustainable hybrid agricultural system will likely happen only if technological development and associated outreach services are supported by public as well as private investment.
  3. Move toward a more informed “smart” approach to agriculture that relies on: i) better forecasting technology to account for variability and to anticipate change and ii) better decision support technology to show how to use limited resources more efficiently while also minimizing adverse environmental impacts. This will require investment in both research and outreach.
  4. Supplement these production-oriented measures with a campaign at national and regional levels to improve transportation, storage infrastructure, education, and market access, especially in developing regions where agriculture plays a critical role in economic growth and food security. This will require significant investment.

An obvious common element in these measures, which have all been proposed in various forms before, is the need for both private and public investment. Hopefully, private investment will be driven by the opportunity provided by new markets. Public investment needs to be motivated by a widespread appreciation of the importance and benefits of food security. The achievement of sustainable food security for everyone, especially while population is growing and the climate is changing, will require a significant commitment of financial and human resources.

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Fall 2020
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