They’ve done so, for example, by increasing use of diesel-fuelled machinery, fertiliser, 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 fertilisers 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 percent 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 percent over the past decade alone.
Similarly, the quality of 13 percent of global soil, including 34 percent 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.
Deforestation trends offer one relatively bright spot in the FAO report. The global forested area has declined by about one percent or 47 million hectares over the past decade, but that is a significant improvement from the nearly two percent decline or 78 million hectares in the 1990s.
And in the November 2021 international climate negotiations in Glasgow, 141 countries, covering 91 percent 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 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 percent 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.
Adaptation will nevertheless be necessary in the face of an anticipated 50 percent 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 percent 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.
Dana Nuccitelli is a research coordinator for the nonprofit Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an environmental scientist, writer, and author of Climatology versus Pseudoscience, published in 2015. He has published 10 peer-reviewed studies related to climate change. This article is reposted from Yale Climate Connections under a Creative Commons 2.5 license.