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Farming Methods Threatens World Food Supply

by Danielle Knight

Excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Common farming methods used worldwide are causing environmental degradation and threatening future world food production, warns a new report released here in mid-February.

Agriculture practices worldwide endanger wild plants and animals, degrade the soil, pollute water and deplete aquifers, says the World Resources Institute and International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), two think-tanks based here. The resulting environmental destruction in turn lowers agricultural productivity, says the 110-page report.

Increased food productivity, say the researchers, will become increasingly important over the next 40 years when food demands will likely double.

By analyzing satellite-derived data and high tech maps, the report provides the first overall picture of how environmental degradation is affecting the world's ability to provide sufficient food.

"The statistics are not good," says Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of IFPRI.

In many developing nations, which are facing food shortages as their populations increase, soil degradation has already dramatically reduced crop productivity causing severe consequences for the poor, he says.

Nutrient depletion, erosion and salinization of soil are widespread and are reducing crop productivity by about 13 percent, says the report, which is the fourth in a series of five studies by the World Resources Institute on global ecosystems.

"We must not continue to take nutrients out of the soil faster than we replace them," says Pinstrup-Andersen. "We must not continue to deplete water resources faster than they can be replenished."

The report says water availability is an increasingly critical constraint to expanding food production in many of the world's agricultural areas.

The irrigation of crops consumes 70 percent of the freshwater withdrawn annually by humans, it says. Of that, only 30-60 percent is returned for downstream use, making irrigation the largest net user of freshwater globally.

"Competition with other water uses, especially drinking water and industrial use will be most intense in developing countries, where population and industries are growing fast," it says.

The excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides are polluting many existing waterways around the planet, it adds. About 20 to 30 percent of the world's forest areas have been converted to agriculture, resulting in extensive species and habitat loss, it says. The pressure to turn forests into cropland will increase in coming decades as the global population is expected to add 1.5 billion people over the next 20 years, it adds.

Biodiversity loss is not widely recognized as important
Agriculture is already encroaching on many national parks and other natural areas protected because of their unique species.

"Many of the areas established to protect biodiversity fall in or around agricultural lands, increasing the difficulties of effective protection," says the report.

According to Robert Thompson, director of the World Bank's rural development department, the trick to avoiding the conversion of existing forests into cropland is to increase production on existing agricultural land.

He says the obstacles to increasing food production are often complex. In Kenya, for example, Thompson says small farmers who were paying five times the world price for fertilizer could not afford high-yielding seeds because since the government failed to invest in rural roads, transportation costs increased and made the seeds prohibitively expensive.

Ian Johnson, a World Bank vice president who chairs the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global network of seed research institutes, says the Bank is reviewing its rural development strategy this year and will use the new report to make a case for reshaping its approach.

"We must find ways to increase food production to sustain growing populations in developing countries without major increases in the amount of new land under cultivation, which would further threaten forests and biodiversity," says Johnson.

While biodiversity loss is not widely recognized as important, especially by commercial agriculture, losses in wild fauna and flora resulting from agriculture is counter productive to enhancing agricultural productivity, says the report.

Wild plants and animals provide what the report calls ecological 'services,' such as pollination, water purification, and pest control that are essential to healthy crops. The report concludes that new institutional mechanisms are needed to develop effective market incentives that value such environmental services.

"We must not ignore the good and services ecosystems provide," says Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute. "To do so would be like ignoring the hand that feeds us."

He says that one way to encourage farmers to protect the environment would be to provide economic incentives to use less fertilizer.

Along the Mississippi River in the United States, for example, many farmers over-fertilize their crops with nitrogen, a cheap and abundant nutrient. The nitrogen runoff that eventually makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico cause poisonous "dead zones."

The use of nitrogen fertilizer also leads to the release of a heat- trapping greenhouse gas. Through the international agreement that seeks to reduce these emissions, known as the Kyoto Protocol, governments are currently negotiating whether farmers could get "credit" or financial incentives for using less nitrogen.

If farmers do get credit, it would be a "triple-win," says Lash.

"We would get a huge water quality benefit, farmers make more money, and we get the climate benefits," he says.

But Pinstrup-Andersen with IFPRI warns that researchers must be cautious about applying solutions that could work in industrialized nations to developing countries where the situation could be very different.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, agricultural soil is undernourished, not over-fertilized like in North America, he says.

"We have to be really careful we don't transplant the ideas that may work (in North America and Europe) to developing countries, where they may be disastrous," he says.

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Albion Monitor February 19, 2001 (

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