Farming audit reviews population challenge

Posted: 5 April 2001

How will the world feed an extra 1.5 billion people over the next two decades when current farming methods have already jeopardised world food production? That is the question posed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the World Resources Institute (WRI).

World food production is at risk from farming methods that have degraded soils, parched aquifers, polluted waters, and caused the loss of animal and plant species, according to a new report by IFPRI and WRI.

Soil degradation has dramatically reduced crop productivity, with severe consequences likely for poor, heavily populated countries. Agricultural lands face an enormous challenge to provide food for the expected population surge of 1.5 billion people over the next 20 years.

Using satellite data, digital maps, and new ways of mapping global agriculture, this report, Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems (PAGE): Agroecosystems, is the first comprehensive audit of the world agriculture's ability to sustain human life.

"Our current global population, currently about 6 billion people, is expected to increase by more than one quarter over the next two decades," said Ian Johnson, chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and a World Bank Vice President. "We must find ways to increase food production to sustain growing populations in developing countries. But this challenge must be accomplished without major increases in the amount of new land under cultivation, which would further threaten forests and biodiversity, and without resorting to unsustainable farming practices."

Stanley Wood, IFPRI scientist and one of the co-authors of the report, stressed that since agricultural land dominates the earth's populated landscapes, we need it to do more than produce more food. "We also rely on agricultural land to provide other goods and services, including clean water and habitat for threatened species," he said.

Wood added that agricultural lands could produce more food and help to prevent global warming by returning more carbon to the soils. "Unfortunately, many current agricultural practices actually contribute to global warming. A recent report by nearly 1,000 of the world's leading climate scientists demonstrates that global warming is increasing faster than originally estimated. In recent decades, scientists have noted an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts in Asia and Africa," he commented.

The report also reveals that:

  • Soil degradation, including nutrient depletion, erosion, and salinization, is widespread.
  • Twenty to 30 percent of the world's forests areas have been converted to agriculture, resulting in extensive species and habitat loss. Agriculture is encroaching on many national parks and other protected areas.
  • Agriculture consumes 70 percent of the freshwater withdrawn annually by humans. Irrigation is draining more water than it is being replenished by rainfall, causing water tables to fall. Moreover, many water sources are being polluted by excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides.
"We must not continue to take nutrients out of the soil faster than we replace them. We must not continue to deplete water resources faster than they can be replenished," said Per Pinstrup-Anderson, Director General of IFPRI. "By analogy, you cannot continue to take more out of your bank account than you put in. Sooner or later, you'll run out of money."

Jonathan Lash, WRI president, explained the importance of the $20 million four-year effort to complete the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment which will complement the PAGE reports. "We must not ignore the goods and services that ecosystems provide. To do so would be like ignoring the hand that feeds us."

For more information, contact:

Michael Rubinstein, Tel: (+1 202) 862-5670, J. Amor, Mobile: (+1 202) 258-1890, Geer, Tel: (+1 202) 473-8930,


Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems (PAGE): Agroecosystems

World Resources Institute