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Symposium 2015

Virtual Library File - Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture

The Challenge

In order to secure the demand for food and biomass by a growing population, the production of biomass needs to double by 2050. Recent studies agree that better crop management on today’s cropland co ...

In order to secure the demand for food and biomass by a growing population, the production of biomass needs to double by 2050. Recent studies agree that better crop management on today’s cropland could increase biomass production by only about 60% (Bruinsma 2011, Tilman et al. 2011). This may be achieved by, for instance, expanding cropland, changing diets, adopting more efficient agricultural practices, or by using current cropland areas more intensively. This choice involves trade-offs. For instance, expanding cropland into non-agricultural ecosystems may reduce other ecosystem services such as biodiversity, and release greenhouse gases. Therefore, intensifying the use of current cropland areas may be a preferred option. In fact, current studies are able to identify regions where there is a capacity to intensify agricultural production (Zabel et al. 2014). Measures aimed at closing the gap between production possibilities and current production, however, are not sufficiently addressed.

This study projects global demand for crop production in 2050 and evaluates the environmental impacts of alternative ways in which this demand might be met. They key message is that an attainment of high yields on existing croplands of underyielding states is of great importance if global crop demand is to be met with minimal environmental impacts.

They find that per capita demand for crops, when measured as caloric or protein content of all crops combined, has been a similarly increasing function of per capita real income since 1960. This relationship forecasts a 100 - 110% increase in global crop demand from 2005 to 2050. Quantitative assessments show that the environmental impacts of meeting this demand depend on how global agriculture expands. If current trends of greater agricultural intensification in richer states and greater land clearing (extensification) in poorer states were to continue, ∼1 billion ha of land would be cleared globally by 2050, with CO2-C equivalent greenhouse gas emissions reaching ∼3 Gt y−1 and N use ∼250 Mt y−1 by then. In contrast, if 2050 crop demand was met by moderate intensification focused on existing croplands of underyielding states, adaptation and transfer of high-yielding technologies to these croplands, and global technological improvements, our analyses forecast land clearing of only ∼0.2 billion ha, greenhouse gas emissions of ∼1 Gt y−1, and global N use of ∼225 Mt y−1. Efficient management practices could substantially lower nitrogen use.