A complete reset of global agriculture could feed further 825m people

13 Nov 2017

A paddy field in Sri Lanka. Image: Dennis Candy/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A new study into how the world conducts mass agriculture has found that we are doing many things the wrong way.

While the development of agriculture has been pinpointed as one of the major advancements of our species, it seems that how we go about it now, with 7bn-plus people on the planet, is all wrong.

While production increases to meet greater demand, millions across the world still go hungry – but that could change, with some drastic action.

According to Ars Technica, the researchers proposed a task that sounds easier said than done: grow crops in a region that is actually able to sustain them.

This means that if different types of crops were shifted to other parts of the globe, based on rainfall and irrigation access, as many as 825m people could have food on their plates.

Additionally, such a major change could potentially allow us to cut water use by 13pc, with proposed methods of making rain-reliant crops more resistant to drought.

Detailing its findings in Nature Geoscience, the research team added that to achieve the figure of 825m people, it grew crops such as soybeans, sorghum, roots, tubers and peanuts.

This means replacing them with other crops that typically wouldn’t be eaten in their respective regions – for example, replacing peanuts with wheat in the Nile Delta, or using sorghum in place of sugar beets in western Russia.

A daunting but necessary task

Despite this challenge, the research suggests that by moving certain crops from the greatest growing regions on the planet, it will cut down on growing instances of drought as the soil currently struggles to cope with the demand placed on it.

Somewhat worryingly, even if such a drastic restructuring of the Earth’s agriculture sector was brought in, some areas will be scarred for some time, such as in the American Midwest, where water scarcity will continue to be a problem.

The team hopes that despite the obvious economic and political challenges that come from implementing such a plan, some aspects would be taken on board by agricultural planners in the years ahead due to the onset of climate change.

“Such an optimisation process does not entail a loss of crop diversity, cropland expansion or impacts on nutrient and feed availability,” the team said.

“It also does not necessarily invoke massive investments in modern technology that, in many regions, would require a switch from smallholder farming to large-scale commercial agriculture with important impacts on rural livelihoods.”

A paddy field in Sri Lanka. Image: Dennis Candy/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic