By growing food, are we consuming the planet?

October 17, 2014


Lettuce production in Guatemala    

World Bank

  • The uncontrolled expansion of agriculture is causing untold damage to the environment
  • Three out of every 10 Latin Americans depend on the land for their livelihood

Is there anything “greener” or more idyllic than fields of crops? Today, some two-fifths of the Earth’s surface is used for agriculture due to the explosion of the global population and economic growth.

However, environmentalists have begun to sound the alarm. With so much land to sow, water, plough and process, the agricultural sector is responsible for an estimated 70% of water consumption worldwide, a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, nearly a third of energy consumption and 80% of deforestation.

It is the paradox of humanity: with more mouths to feed, more land needs to be cultivated, which in turn increases the probabilities of exhausting land and natural resources. We are feeding ourselves at the cost of future generations.

In Latin America, millions of people depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Along with Asia, the region will be responsible for an additional 75% of agricultural production over the next decade, according to a FAO-OECD report.

Historically, intensive agriculture has been considered key to food security. But at what cost? The overuse of fertilizers and water resources is creating major environmental problems worldwide.

If we consider that the global population is expected to grow to more than 9 billion by 2050, the outlook for the planet is alarming. A 50% increase in food production is required to guarantee food security for all. The environmental impact of this increase could be dramatic hence, the World Food Day slogan: “feeding the world, caring for the earth.”

"Reaching this target (of increased production) will require expanding cultivated areas, particularly in the developing world, which will have implications for the sustainability of the land, fresh water, biodiversity and the Earth’s climate,” said Mohamed Bakarr, Senior Environmental Expert for the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

According to Bakarr, the key to achieving global food security is to increase the productivity of existing agricultural lands in a way that guarantees the sustainability of natural resources that are resistant to the effects of a constantly-changing world.

" Climate-smart agriculture is an opportunity to comprehensively address food security  "

Mohamed Bakarr

Senior Environmental Expert at the Global Environment Facility

Food security and the environment

A warmer climate will have a direct impact on the agricultural industry. Therefore, food production not only needs to be sustainable, but also “smart,” both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to increase resilience to the effects of climate change.

At the same time, consumers need to stop wasting food. Currently, they waste some 1.3 billion tons annually, causing US$ 750 billion in environmental damage, according to several organizations.

 “Climate-smart agriculture is an opportunity to comprehensively address food security, benefitting the adaptation to and mitigation of impacts,” said Bakarr.

That opportunity will create benefits far beyond food production. Greater sustainability and the more effective use of resources will increase carbon absorption, improve land and soil conditions, enable effective watershed management and allow the conservation of biodiversity in agricultural areas.

Hunger and poverty

Although there is concern for the planet, an undeniable truth must be raised: more than 800 million people around the world, an estimated 49 million of whom live in Latin America, have no secure access to the daily foods they need to survive, according to the FAO.

Hunger and malnutrition are the leading health risk and the number one cause of child mortality worldwide. No region is immune. In Latin America, an estimated 7 million pre-school-aged children suffer from chronic malnutrition, the majority of whom are of indigenous or African descent, according to the World Food Program.

In Latin America, as in the rest of the world, hunger is intimately linked to poverty. Hunger will not disappear with increased production alone; inequalities must also be addressed.

 “When a household develops strategies to fight food insecurity, those with more resources develop the most appropriate strategies,” explained José Cuesta, Development Economist at the World Bank and author of the Food Price Watch study. “The poorest citizens sell their productive assets, take their children out of school or stop eating for a while,” he added.

Thirty percent of Latin Americans depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Major droughts during the first four months of 2014 severely affected crops in Central America. Nearly two million people in the region faced food insecurity during that period. According to Cuesta, in our region, unlike in other parts of the world, the rise of the middle class over the past decade can present additional challenges in terms of feeding everyone. “When a person increases his socioeconomic status, their food waste tends to increase, something that the poor cannot allow to happen,” he said.

Poor harvests also drive up food prices, which in turn generate more poverty. It is a troubling scenario for a region that is home to a third of the world’s arable land. Nevertheless, experts agree that with adequate management, the Latin American agricultural sector still has significant potential for feeding future generations.