The way ahead on nutrition?

While waiting for agriculture to do that transformation thing, it may be worthwhile reading the latest Global Nutrition Report. Although some metrics are moving in the wrong direction, I found some comfort in this observation:

…‘triple duty actions’ which tackle malnutrition and other development challenges could yield multiple benefits across the SDGs. For example, diversification of food production landscapes can provide multiple benefits by: ensuring the basis of a nutritious food supply essential to address undernutrition and prevent diet-related NCDs; enabling the selection of micronutrient-rich crops with ecosystem benefits; and, if the focus is on women in food production, empowering women to become innovative food value chain entrepreneurs while minimising work and time burden.

So what’s stopping us?

Agriculture hoping to transform itself, and COP23

So, the UN Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as COP23, has started here in Bonn, and we’re trying to make sure the voice of agriculture is heard, on the fringes if nowhere else. The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) is busy touting its vision for an agricultural transformation under climate change. With a bunch of partners, they’ve organized a series of side events on the different dimensions that such a transformation will entail, including, perhaps most relevant to us here, the role ofcrop breeding and improvement. All the usual social media channels are in play, so follow along, and send in your questions and harangues.

Feeding another 825 million people is easy

A paper just published in Nature Geoscience has terrific news for anyone worried about the sustainability of agriculture.1 It should be possible to grow 10% more calories and 19% more protein while simultaneously using 14% less rainwater and 12% less irrigation water. And that, the authors say “would feed an additional 825 million people”.

Kyle Frankel Davis and colleagues reach this happy conclusion by modelling the effect of shifting crops around to where they yield the most, taking into account things like how much water is available and which crops do best under those circumstances. Globally, you do it by increasing groundnuts, roots, soybeans, sorghum and tubers at the expense of millets, rice, sugar crops and wheat, but the details depend on where you are. In western Russia, for example, you cut down on the millets, sugar beet and sunflowers and plant rainfed sorghum, soybeans, tubers and wheat. In the Nile Delta, groundnuts, maize and sorghum replace sugar beet and wheat. In other places the substitutions involve more crops.

Their detailed look at the outputs of the models offers some important observations. For water, 42 countries, many of which currently don’t have enough for their farms, would save at least 20% of their water needs. And 63 countries that currently depend on imports for a lot of their food would see their production of protein and calories increase by at least 20%, boosting food security.

There’s bad news too: in Australia’s Murray-Darling basin, northern India and the US midwest, no choice of crops offers sustainable water use.

Optimistic optimisation

This approach is not entirely new. In 2006 Christoph Müller and his colleagues did a similar kind of optimisation exercise under which crops were allocated to the areas in which they would be most productive, ignoring trade barriers, transportation costs and subsidies.2 That model found that you could grow all the food humanity needs on just 2 million km2, whereas you need 35 million km2 if you try and grow as much food as possible locally.3

The Davis et al. study is somewhat more realistic, constraining the shifts so that there’s no loss of crop diversity, expansion of croplands or impact on nutrient and feed availability. They also say that there would not be much impact on rural livelihoods.

Both papers are making important points about the contribution of agriculture to global water and carbon cycles, although I guess the take-home is that the way agriculture is organised now is really, really inefficient. That’s clearly true.

But still …

I see no prospect of any shift to the kind of global distribution that either paper imagines.

What are people on the 33 million km2 supposed to do instead of growing food? Hang around waiting for a shipment? Which they buy with what?

And given how wedded people are to their “traditional” crops, even if those crops have been around less than a couple of hundred years, I can’t imagine them shifting just because it would be more sustainable.

Davis et al. say:

Of course, there are probably cultural barriers and dietary preferences that may limit the application of this strategy in certain ways — considerations that may be better accommodated in future analyses by constraining the production quantities of each crop.

It probably needs world peace too.

  1. Davis, K. F., M. C. Rulli, A. Seveso, and P. D’Odorico. (2017). Increased food production and reduced water use through optimized crop distribution. Nature Geoscience. Published online:
    06 November 2017 doi: 10.1038/s41561-017-0004-5 Behind a paywall, natch, but I’m sure you can find a copy if you’re suffiently motivated. []
  2. Müller, C., A. Bondeau, H. Lotze-Campen, W. Cramer, and W. Lucht (2006), Comparative impact of climatic and nonclimatic factors on global terrestrial carbon and water cycles, Global Biogeochem. Cycles, 20, GB4015, doi:10.1029/2006GB002742. []
  3. Strangely, Davis et al. don’t cite Müller et al, but I’m sure that’s just an oversight. []

Another Governing Body done and dusted

Jeremy has been able to heroically deal with various housekeeping issues on the blog without interference from me for the past week or so because I’ve been in Kigali heroically dealing with the Seventh Session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. As ever, Earth Negotiations Bulletin has done a great job of digesting each day’s deliberations, and then providing an overall summary. Perhaps the main outcome is a tentative move towards an at least partly subscription model for the Multilateral System. There has been interest in this from the private sector, though the exact level of contribution of course remains to be negotiated.

A great job, as I say, except for one thing. Here’s an excerpt from ENB’s final analysis of the meeting:

Veteran negotiator from the Netherlands Bert Visser, ETC Group’s Pat Mooney, famous for coining the terms “biopiracy” and “terminator seeds,” and IRRI’s bridge-builder Rory Hillocks were celebrated with standing ovations for their contribution to the Treaty and PGRFA conservation and sustainable use. Furthermore, side-events showcased a multitude of participatory programmes, community projects, and networks steadily working on agrobiodiversity conservation and sustainable use, within the Treaty framework but without the visibility they deserve. In the words of an African saying, “Many small people, in many small places, do many small things, which can alter the face of the world.” The challenge for the Treaty, as an expert summed up, is to bring them all together and let the world know.

I suspect, however, that “IRRI’s bridge-builder” is really Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton.

Brainfood: Finger millet genotyping, Spanish apple diversity, Wheat value chains