By Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha
Global food demand is expected to increase by 58 to 98 percent by 2050, given the increase in the world’s population from the current 7.5 billion to 9.7 billion. The impacts on natural resources, land, water and energy demand would be enormous. Energy demand is expected to increase by 80%, with the global economy four times larger than today. About 85% of demand is expected to be met by fossil fuels, with increasing greenhouse gas emissions leading to global warming.
Mitigating global warming, increasing investments in agricultural development, especially in the generation of new technologies, as well as reducing food waste are essential to meet the challenge of feeding the world by 2050.
The “greenhouse effect” that is expected to increase global temperatures by about 1.4 to 4.5 degrees Celsius over the next six decades could lead to major climate change globally. This effect is caused by the absorption of radiation returning to the atmosphere by several gases, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2). The other gases involved are methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons, which, although widespread in much smaller quantities in the atmosphere, are more powerful than CO2. Extreme climate impacts linked to the greenhouse effect are expected to seriously affect food production and productivity, especially in the tropics.
While extreme heat is likely to cause severe droughts in dry areas with severe consequences on crop growth and yields, high intensity rainfall events would cause flooding resulting in soil erosion and other disturbances resulting in crop losses and other negative impacts. At the same time, global warming could cause sea level to rise by more than one meter over the next fifty years, endangering the lives and property of half of the world’s population who live in the areas. coastal.
On the other hand, warming cold zones in countries extending to northern latitudes like China, Canada and Russia are expected to experience longer and warmer growth periods. Thus, they will benefit from climate change. In fact, Russia could be the biggest beneficiary. With such a climatic trend, Russia should be able to re-exploit its northern lands, no less than 40 million hectares, equal in area to that of Germany – the lands it had abandoned afterwards. the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. This could make Russia a much more economically powerful and politically authoritarian country. However, this will require significant investments in agriculture and rural infrastructure.
Iceland and Finland are also expected to benefit from this climate change. The warming is expected to allow the expansion of pastures, hay and other agricultural production systems in both countries. Rice production in Japan is expected to skyrocket, leading to surpluses and requiring revisions in rice trade and support policies.
However, the losses on a global scale would outweigh the benefits due to the likely severe negative impacts, especially in the humid and dry tropics.
For many developing countries, a near doubling of the population and, simultaneously, a loss of one sixth of cultivated land by 2050 are expected due to the vagaries of the climate. Climate change mitigation is therefore of paramount importance, especially for tropical third world countries.
Mitigate climate change
The promotion of alternative energy strategies that can replace fossil fuels is of crucial importance. There is a lot of interest in alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and hydropower, but the global change is not satisfactory.
Carbon dioxide accounts for 60 to 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Forests and vegetation in general are important in mitigating climate change because they sequester CO2.
The destruction of tropical forests, especially tropical rainforests, is an issue that needs to be addressed more firmly. Vast swaths of Amazonian forests, considered the “lung of the world”, have already been opened up to agriculture and other purposes. Likewise, large tracts of East Asian rainforests in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have been opened up, largely for agriculture. In this regard, the cultivation of trees such as rubber and oil palm is “reluctantly” allowed, at least in terms of carbon sequestration, as their rates are comparable to those of tropical forests. The problem, however, is that vast areas have been opened up for industries, human settlements and arable crops as well.
About 5-10% of methane, the second most important greenhouse gas, escapes from natural gas systems. The other sources are livestock, flooded rice fields and animal manure stored for long periods in lagoons and reservoirs. Nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases make up about 5 percent of greenhouse gases and are generated by human activities, applied nitrogen fertilizers and industries. Although there is some degree of mitigation intervention, the impacts are insufficient.
Minimize food waste
Reducing food waste is an essential need to meet food demand.
Waste occurs all along the food chain, from producer to consumer, and is estimated to be around 30 to 40 percent, especially in third world countries, where it is least affordable.
Much of this waste occurs during transport. Governments should treat the issue of storage and transport security as a matter of the highest priority.
New agricultural technologies
Many countries and international agricultural research institutes have launched research and development (R&D) programs to address the challenges of global warming. Since the start of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, globally grain yields with conventional breeding technologies have increased. In Sri Lanka and many other countries, they have increased tenfold or more in the past 50 years.
However, yields are likely to “peak” with conventional technologies in the future. Thus, it is necessary to resort to other technologies such as genetically modified (GM) or transgenic selection. At the same time, improving soil and water management is of crucial importance.
There were only 1.6 million hectares of GM crops in the world in 1996, which increased tenfold over the next two decades, and now stands at 1.4 billion hectares, or 10 percent of global arable land. However, serious concerns have been expressed by some regarding their impact on biodiversity due to crossing with compatible native species and the production of “competitive” traits that can multiply faster than native species.
However, many experts, including the British Royal Society, consider GM crops to be completely safe and do not cause more damage to the environment than conventional crops. There are, however, some 29 countries that have rejected GM crops. They include Sri Lanka. However, we do not know what we eat through imported food. Almost all of the soy meat we eat is imported and much of it could be GM. In the opinion of many scientists, with increasing knowledge about gene transfer between varieties and species, the negative impacts could be considerably reduced; and GM crops will play a key role in meeting future food challenges.
In conclusion, much more investment in R&D is needed to meet future food demand, especially from developing countries. While developed countries invest on average more than 2% of GDP, most developing countries invest much less. For example, India spends almost 1 percent while we spend a meager 0.3 percent.
Sri Lanka spends almost the least in Asia, even below Bangladesh and just above Nepal! Our institutes, including the Department of Agriculture (DOA), are drastically depleted of resources, especially skilled personnel due to both vertical and lateral brain drain, the latter of which is more severe now. Universities pay almost double the salary of a qualified researcher compared to R&D institutions. The result is an exodus of researchers to universities. Government intervention to redress the situation is urgent.