The perfect storm: How can we feed the world without wrecking the planet?

By Professor Tim Reeves
Enterprise Professor in Sustainable Agriculture

Eight hundred million people go to bed hungry each night.

Two billion people are malnourished and lack essential vitamins and trace elements they need to live healthy and productive lives.

A further two billion are malnourished from the excessive consumption of energy-rich foods and suffer from obesity and a range of metabolic diseases.

Growing environmental challenges threaten to make this global disaster much, much worse.

As well as devastating lives and disrupting economies around the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted significant vulnerabilities in our agri-food systems.

I believe nutritional security is humankind’s greatest challenge in the coming decades. It is clear that we need to simultaneously improve agricultural productivity and environmental health – this means growing more food with less land, water, greenhouse gas emissions and energy-intensive inputs like pesticides and fertilisers.

As some have put it: “How can we feed the world without wrecking the planet?”

Dire warnings

In a landmark 2009 paper, Sir John Beddington (then Chief Scientific Adviser in the UK) alerted the world to the coming “perfect storm”. He forecast that by 2030, global demands for water would increase by 30 per cent, and global demands for energy and food would each increase by half.

The confluence of these challenges would gravely challenge our environmental and nutritional wellbeing.

In retrospect, his warnings may not have been dire enough. The perfect storm is already here. Some threats Beddington thought were unlikely to hit the world’s 2030 “global intray” have already arrived, including a global pandemic and numerous environmental disasters.

To withstand these challenges, our agriculture systems need to be more resilient, restorative and regenerative. There are many possible approaches to developing such systems.

Big Farmer

Much of the food that is exported around the world to underpin food security in many importing countries comes from modern, technologically driven, large-scale agricultural production systems.

Australia is a good example of an exporter. The average Aussie farmer feeds around 600 people — 200 here at home and around 400 overseas

In contrast, about half of the world’s locally consumed food is produced by smallholder farmers in developing countries.

Critics refer to the broadacre farming systems common in Australia, Canada, USA and Europe as “industrial agriculture”. These systems are highly productive, but depend on increasing use of fertilisers and pesticides, significant greenhouse gas emissions and trillions of litres of water (around 70 per cent of global freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture).

The launch of the Victoria Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub
Professor Tim Reeves with hub partners at the launch of the Victoria Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub. (Photo: Kate Norman)

Declining levels of soil carbon and nitrogen, rising pesticide resistance, and growing climate risks present substantial and well-founded doubts about the future of these systems. Under the perfect storm scenario, they are not sustainable.

The agri-food sector is also highly dependent on temporary or itinerant workers. We need more investment in learning and career development to build a workforce capable of making our food production systems sustainable, resilient, and fit-for-purpose.

The search for sustainable agri-food systems has become more urgent over the past 20–30 years, and is of paramount importance today.

Alternative agricultures

Organic and biodynamic agriculture are two long-standing approaches to restorative, holistic food production currently practiced in many developing and industrialised countries. More recently, regenerative agriculture has sparked interest from both farmers and consumers.

The following definitions come from practitioners who advocate these systems (and don’t necessarily reflect my views):

Organic agriculture

  • Organic agriculture is a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.
  • It emphasises the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally adapted systems.
  • This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological, and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfil any specific function within the system.

(FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission, 1999)

Biodynamic agriculture

  • Biodynamics is a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition.
  • Biodynamics is embedded in the work of philosopher and scientist Dr Rudolf Steiner, whose 1924 lectures to farmers opened a new way to integrate scientific understanding with a recognition of spirit in nature.
  • Biodynamics has continued to develop and evolve since the 1920s through the collaboration of many farmers and researchers. Around the world, biodynamics is alive in thousands of thriving gardens, farms, vineyards, ranches, and orchards.
  • The principles and practices of biodynamics can be applied anywhere food is grown, with thoughtful adaptation to scale, landscape, climate and culture.

(The Biodynamics Association)

Regenerative agriculture

  • Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services.
  • Regenerative Agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation.
  • At the same time it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities.
  • The system draws from decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of organic farming, agroecology, holistic management, and agroforestry.

(Terra Genesis International)

These alternative management systems clearly have many commonalties and overlaps, and there is much literature on the strengths and weaknesses of each. All use less energy intensive inputs than “industrial agriculture” and may have more resilience to climate shocks.

However, critics of these systems have argued that they are often not productive enough to feed a global population still growing at around 160 people per minute. They also point to the lack of scientific evidence to support some of the claims made by advocates for these systems, particularly around soil carbon sequestration and other aspects of soil health.

There is, however, a growing portfolio of research into regenerative agriculture to verify (or otherwise) the claims and experiences its practitioners report.

Sustaining and intensifying

Sustainable agricultural intensification (SAI) is an evidence-based approach to restorative food production that aims to increase the yield of existing farmland while reducing environmental damage. Its practices include:

  • Conservation agriculture: minimum soil disturbance, soil mulching, diverse farming systems including crops/ forages/livestock/shrubs and trees.
  • Soil health: particularly increased levels of soil carbon and nitrogen.
  • Efficient water management: water use-efficiency and reduced water usage.
  • Integrated pest management: greater emphasis on non-chemical management of weeds, diseases and pests and more judicious use of pesticides.
  • Improved genetic resources: plants and animals that are more stress tolerant—biotic and abiotic; more input use-efficient; and with greater productivity and diversity.

Each of these elements can significantly improve the productivity of farming systems, but the synergies between them could lead to even greater transformation: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

An additional ‘win-win’ is that increased bio-sequestration of carbon in these systems would not only enhance agricultural productivity and profitability, but also significantly contribute to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for Australia. It has been estimated that widespread adoption of SAI systems could offset over half of our total national emissions through soil carbon sequestration.

We need to change the way we think about our agri-food systems. Business as usual is going to be business in decline.

Cultivating solutions

SAI has the potential to effectively address all the challenges of the perfect storm scenario. For example, studies on cereal production systems in south Asia found that compared to traditional farmer practices, zero tillage with residue retention increased:

  • average yield by 5.8 per cent
  • water use efficiency by 12.6 per cent
  • net economic return of 25.9 per cent.

It also reduced contributions to global warming by up to a third.

The major weakness of SAI is its continued use of fertilisers and pesticides, albeit at reduced levels and with more judicious application.

There is extensive peer-reviewed scientific literature on the benefits of all of the practices which comprise SAI, and it is generally accepted as a “scientifically sound pathway to more restorative and more regenerative agriculture.”

But if this approach is to be further developed and adopted around the globe, there are still important research gaps that need to be urgently addressed. Although support for individual SAI technologies is growing, we need more large-scale experimentation to better understand how to combine these components into viable agricultural systems.

The University of Melbourne is proposing to address this gap through the development of the Dookie Sustainable Agricultural Research Platform, comparing a number of farming systems at a large “farmlet” scale.

It is my view that SAI is the best way forward to enhance our current farming systems—both smallholder and larger-scale—to successfully address the challenges to future food and nutritional security. We should make every endeavour to fully support the bio-physical research and the social, institutional and policy settings necessary for its widespread adoption.

However, if we are to ensure the future of global food and nutritional security in the Anthropocene era, we must also consider other options for our agri-food systems.

Growing innovations

Many innovative ideas on new food production systems have emerged in the past decade. These include developments around:

  • peri-urban agriculture
  • vertical farming
  • plant-based meat substitutes
  • insect protein production
  • algae based foods.

Investment in these emerging systems is increasing, and it is clear that some or all will play a greater part in our food production over the shorter term - if only for targeted, high-value markets.

The agri-food sector is highly dependent on temporary or itinerant workers.

We need more investment in learning and career development to build a workforce capable of making our food production systems sustainable, resilient, and fit-for-purpose.

In addressing the perfect storm challenges, attractive features of some of these innovations include:

  • reduced water usage
  • reduced pesticide and fertiliser usage
  • less degradation of natural resources
  • reduced greenhouse gas emissions
  • shorter supply chains
  • less dependence on itinerant work force
  • enhanced nutritional value.

It is likely that these potential solutions will complement current agri-food systems rather than replace them – for now.

Weathering the storm

We need to change the way we think about our agri-food systems. Business as usual is going to be business in decline.

Australia and the world cannot be complacent about our current food challenges, let alone future threats: another crisis like COVID-19 could strike at any moment.

The interactions between the pandemic, environment and food production aren’t simple. We need to use systems-thinking, not compartmentalised thinking, if we are to find solutions to our interconnected problems.

Future food and nutritional security is the greatest challenge facing humankind. We need science and innovation from all STEM disciplines to meet this challenge head on.