If yield levels don't continue growing, an area the size of most of Western Europe will have to be converted to farmland – releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG).
The soaring food prices since 2007-08 confirmed a basic challenge for the agricultural sector: to match strong growth in demand with increased productivity. Future volatility, not least due to increases in severe weather conditions, is predicted to be a new norm, adding to this challenge.
“Food, climate, energy, resources – not least that of fresh water – are entangled issues. Global leaders must integrate all these elements when resolving future food security,” says Jørgen Haslestad, CEO and President of Yara International ASA.
The agricultural sector is itself a major emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), with livestock and deforestation caused by farmland expansion as the main sources. Land conversion releases large amounts of GHG from biomass both above ground and in the soil. This plus biodiversity issues are the key reasons why the “The Future of Food and Farming” report concludes against land conversion: “there will hardly ever be a case to convert forests, especially tropical rainforests, to food production.”
“In the case of high and low yielding farming systems, the options are very clear. Agriculture is the main driver for deforestation. This is a major part of the GHG emissions caused by agriculture and should be avoided,” says Joachim Lammel, Yara’s VP in Research and Development.
Yields in the balance
Yara has reviewed the yield levels of five key global crops; wheat, rice, maize, soy bean and barley. Combined, these crops cover about 50% of current cropland. By 2050 the demand for these crops will increase by 30%. This is based on a 2010-12 baseline, using the FAO 2050 crop demand scenario, which will still leave 320 million people hungry.
“Without any yield level increase, covering the additional demand would take an added acreage of 220 million hectares. This is the size of most of Western Europe; Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, UK, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal combined,” explains Lammel.
Converting natural land into arable land at this magnitude would trigger devastating amounts of GHG emissions, not to mention the local climate and biodiversity effects.
“While this is of course not a likely scenario, it illustrates the importance of continuous efforts to lift yield levels,” says Lammel.
Forest smart farming
In an alternative scenario, Yara has calculated the required annual growth rates in crop yield that are needed to meet the demand based on existing agricultural land without triggering deforestation.
“In such a scenario yields must increase substantially, but still within what has been historically achievable. The highest growth rates are at 1.08% for soy bean, down to 0.37% for rice,” says Lammel.
In the FAO prediction, a total of 58 million hectares of additional farmland is needed for these five crops alone – and for all crops combined, more than 100 million hectares. The FAO prediction sees lower annual growth rates than in a zero deforestation scenario. Closing this gap would substantially reduce the GHG emissions caused by agriculture.
“The yield growth rates predicted by the FAO are below the current growth trend. We agree there are foreseeable challenges to maintain growth. However, this illustrates that a substantial reduction of deforestation rates should be within reach if a global consensus is reached to dedicate resources to sustainably increase yields,” says Lammel.
Over the past decades deforestation due to farmland expansion has slowed down. Compared to the 1990s, the deforestation emissions caused by agriculture in 2011 were reduced by about 17%. At the same time the agricultural system has increased deliveries substantially.
“This is truly encouraging, and it demonstrates that the higher-yields option can be achieved. Halting deforestation would be a major win in the fight against global warming,” says Lammel.