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Feeding another 3 billion people by the year 2030 will require rapid gains in agricultural production. Achieving those gains without damaging natural resources on which both agriculture and life itself depend will require a modified approach to food production compared with the past - an approach that builds on ecological principles such as diversity, resilience and efficient energy use.

Limited Resources, Vulnerable Resources

IN ORDER TO MEET MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS of a growing population, food production will need to double over the next 30 years. Yet the natural resources required to produce this additional food such as soil, water and the diversity of crops and livestock - are finite and vulnerable to degradation.

Between 1950 and 1995, for example, rapid population growth cut in half the amount of cultivated land per person - from more than half a hectare to barely a quarter.Because only about 11 percent of the world's land is really suited to agriculture, the amount of arable land per person will continue shrinking. By the year 2020, for example, Southeast Asia will have only 0.09 hectares per person - an area barely one-tenth the size of a soccer field.

Per caput water availability is also falling rapidly. In Africa, for example, the amount of water available per person has dropped almost 75 percent since 1950 - from over 20,000 cubic metres a year to a little over 5,000 cubic metres. Experts define countries where the amount of water available for all purposes, including agriculture and industry, amounts to less than 1,000 cubic metres per person per year. More than 230 million people - mostly in Africa and the Near East - now live in such countries.

Soil limits agriculture

The Price of Expanded Production

PUSHING AGAINST RESOURCE LIMITS to increase food production can damage or degrade natural resources in many ways:

soil degradation - Expansion of agriculture onto less suitable land exposes fragile soils to the dangers of erosion and nutrient depletion. Human-induced degradation already affects almost 2 billion hectares, or 15 percent of the world's soils.

deforestation - During the 1980s, more than 15 million hectares of tropical forests were lost each year, mainly to provide land for agriculture.

drainage of wetlands - Felling and drainage of mangrove forests and other coastal wetlands destroys spawning and feeding grounds for fisheries. About 95 percent of the world's marine production originates from coastal ecosystems.

loss of biodiversity - The conversion of forests and other natural habitats to food production has been the primary reason for the rapid loss of biological diversity that threatens between 5 and 20 percent of some groups of vertebrates and plants with extinction.

overfishing - almost 70 percent of those stocks of marine fisheries for which assessments are available are being fished at levels close to or beyond the maximum sustainable yield.

Land cleared for agriculture

Intensive Production - Promise and Peril

Applying intensive production techniques to increase output from Lands already under cultivation could both provide enough food to meet the needs of an expanding population and relieve pressure on marginal Lands and vulnerable ecosystems. Research stations typically obtain yields more than double those achieved by farmers under similar conditions.

But intensive food production can also take a heavy toll on the environment.

Poorly managed irrigation can lead to salinization and waterlogging. Some 30 million hectares of irrigated Land have been severely damaged by poor drainage and accumulation of salt in the soil.

Irrigated land affected by salinization

Reliance on a few high-yielding varieties of plants and Livestock has eroded biodiversity within the limited number of species used for agriculture, increasing vulnerability to pests and diseases. Thirty percent of all breeds of Livestock have less than 20 breeding males or Less than 1000 breeding females remaining.

Intensive aquaculture systems, such as cage culture of salmon and Large-scale shrimp culture in coastal areas, can cause excessive nutrient enrichment of water bodies, degradation of wetlands and the loss of biological diversity from the introduction of exotic species.

How to Reduce Environmental Impacts

ENVIRONMENTALLY SOUND food production systems must achieve three aims: increase production and productivity, reduce pollution and resource degradation, and be socially and economically viable.

Among hundreds of attractive possibilities, the following will have priority:

Erosion control in Peru

Securing Food within Nature's Limits

SCIENTISTS believe that technical options are available to provide enough food for future populations without harming the environment.

Keys to achieving this in practice will be:

The political and administrative framework for achieving these goals should have at least four main elements:

The Role of Government

Unlike many other sectors, governments have a special role to play in promoting rural development and environmentally sound agriculture. Governments should:

IPM training in the Philippines

For further information, please contact:
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy
Information Division, Tel: (39-6) 5225-3276/5225-4781/5225-4243
Sustainable Development Deprtment , Tel: (39-6) 5225-3450
Internet, or


United Nations Environment Programme, P.O. Box 30552 Nairobi, Kenya
Information and Public Affairs
Tel: (254-2) 621234; Fax: (254-2) 226831;

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