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To feed the world, farming emissions must rise

We must innovate to avoid a food crisis. AAP

FOOD SECURITY - Agriculture is one of the few industries in the world in which emissions must rise.

The carbon footprint of farming will become larger over the next 40 years as we feed a rapidly growing world population.

Like most other sectors, the agricultural industry recognises its environmental obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But with an additional three billion people in the world by 2050, producers will face a unique challenge.

Unlike the energy and transport sectors, where there are emerging alternative fuels and technologies, there are no alternatives to food.

On a global scale, agriculture must become both more energy efficient and productive, but we have to accept that net greenhouse gas emissions from farming will rise with the necessary growth in food production.

By 2050, there are likely to be nine billion people on the earth, requiring 70% more food than we currently produce. Based on current trends, we can expect global farm emissions to increase by more than 50% above 2000 levels if we are to meet world food demand.

Cutting emissions an unaffordable luxury for world’s poor

As a developed nation, we are afforded the luxury of looking at ways to cut emissions. With emerging technologies we could potentially reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions – the major greenhouse gases emitted by agriculture – by up to about 55 and 25%, respectively.

But on a global scale the reality is far more complex. Many of these technologies are yet to be adopted in wealthy countries like Australia, let alone in developing nations.

Given the typical lag between research and adoption, it would be optimistic to expect even a 20% drop in farm emissions from wealthy countries by 2050.

The bulk of population growth will occur in the developing world. The population in poor countries will increase by more than 50% by 2050, whereas the developed world will grow by less than 10%.

With most of what Australia and other wealthy nations produce sold in high value markets, the additional food needed to meet demand will have to be produced in the developing world.

In these countries, people are rightly more concerned with where the next meal is coming from than with carbon pollution. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from food production is a low priority when they already struggle to produce enough food in the first place.

Reducing red meat is not the answer

Other visions for reducing emissions from farms centre around calculations that show we can achieve large reductions in global warming by reducing red meat consumption.

In the developed world there is an increasing awareness of the effects of red meat consumption on both health and environment.

But with the population in Australia growing by such a small amount relative to developing world, a decrease in meat consumption here will have only a small impact on global meat production.

The number of people in the world that have the privilege of choosing a vegetarian, vegan or white meat diet is, in fact, extremely limited. In developing countries, only a small proportion of the population will be wealthy enough to eat red meat in the first place.

The majority of the increased global population will rely on locally grown crops and perhaps poultry and pork, as they are unable to afford red meat and dairy products.

There are millions who are obligate vegetarians, with only a small amount of grain and maybe milk available.

Then there are large population centres where ruminants are kept for religious reasons (cattle in India, goats in Africa), or as a means of wealth (cattle in Africa) or transport.

Strategies that advocate reducing red meat and dairy consumption will not have a major impact on the expected increase in global emissions from agriculture, simply because most of the world isn’t eating red meat or dairy anyway.

Our responsibility to a growing world

Instead, the developed world has a responsibility – with its vast means for investing in technology and innovation – to fund the ‘win-win’ research required. We need to invest in technologies that improve farm productivity while reducing emissions per unit of meat, milk or grain produced.

These need to be innovations that can be adopted by farms in poorer nations as well. Research must follow a commitment to share this knowledge. This is the only way in which global food production targets can be met with less emissions than are currently predicted.

We should not expect net reductions in farm emissions by 2050 if we are to meet the world’s food needs. We can reduce emissions per unit of food produced and we can improve efficiency, but feeding the world will mean a net global increase in emissions from agriculture.

More from our series on food security

When the world starves, where will Australia get its food?

Without biosecurity, higher crop yields mean better fed rodents

The unpalatable truth about biofuels, hunger and political unrest

Time to modify the GM debate

Soil: it’s what keeps us clothed and fed

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