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Food Can Be A Politically Destabilizing Issue By 2050

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By Countercurrents

The world is less than 40 years away from a food shortage that will have serious implications for people and governments, said Dr. Fred Davies, senior science advisor for the US Agency for International Aid's bureau of food security. [1]

"For the first time in human history, food production will be limited on a global scale by the availability of land, water and energy," said the top scientist at the USAID. "Food issues could become as politically destabilizing by 2050 as energy issues are today."

Davies, who also is a Texas A&M AgriLife Regents Professor of Horticultural Sciences, addressed the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting in Washington, DC on the "monumental challenge of feeding the world."

He said the world population will increase 30 percent to 9 billion people by mid-century. That would call for a 70 percent increase in food to meet demand.

"But resource limitations will constrain global food systems," Davies added. "The increases currently projected for crop production from biotechnology, genetics, agronomics and horticulture will not be sufficient to meet food demand." Davies said the ability to discover ways to keep pace with food demand have been curtailed by cutbacks in spending on research.

"The U.S. agricultural productivity has averaged less than 1.2 percent per year between 1990 and 2007," he said. "More efficient technologies and crops will need to be developed -- and equally important, better ways for applying these technologies locally for farmers -- to address this challenge." Davies said when new technologies are developed they often do not reach the small-scale farmer worldwide.

"A greater emphasis is needed in high-value horticultural crops," he said. "Those create jobs and economic opportunities for rural communities and enable more profitable, intense farming." Horticultural crops, Davies noted, are 50 percent of the farm-gate value of all crops produced in the US.

He also made the connection between the consumption of fruits and vegetables and chronic disease prevention and pointed to research centers in the U.S. that are making links between farmers, biologists and chemists, grocers, health care practitioners and consumers. That connection, he suggested, also will be vital in the push to grow enough food to feed people in coming years.

"Agricultural productivity, food security, food safety, the environment, health, nutrition and obesity -- they are all interconnected," Davies said. One in eight people worldwide, he added, already suffers from chronic undernourishment, and 75 percent of the world's chronically poor are in the mid-income nations such as China, India, Brazil and the Philippines.

"The perfect storm for horticulture and agriculture is also an opportunity," Davies said. "Consumer trends such as views on quality, nutrition, production origin and safety impact what foods we consume. Also, urban agriculture favors horticulture." For example, he said, the fastest growing segment of new farmers in California, are female, non-Anglos who are "intensively growing horticultural crops on small acreages," he said.

A holistic approach needed

Scientists are suggesting a holistic approach to feed the world population.

Protecting wildlife while feeding a world population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050 will require a holistic approach to conservation that considers human-altered landscapes such as farmland, according to Stanford scientists.

Wildlife and the natural habitat that supports it might be an increasingly scarce commodity in a world where at least three-quarters of the land surface is directly affected by humans and the rest is vulnerable to human-caused impacts such as climate change. But what if altered agricultural landscapes could play vital roles in nurturing wildlife populations while also feeding an ever-growing human population?

A new study, published April 16 in the journal Nature and co-authored by three Stanford scientists, finds that a long-accepted theory used to estimate extinction rates, predict ecological risk and make conservation policy recommendations is overly pessimistic.

The scientists point to an alternative framework that promises a more effective way of accounting for human-altered landscapes and assessing ecological risks.

Current projections forecast that about half of Earth's plants and animals will go extinct over the next century because of human activities, mostly due to our agricultural methods.

"The extinction under way threatens to weaken and even destroy key parts of Earth's life-support systems, upon which economic prosperity and all other aspects of human well-being depend," said co-author Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science at Stanford and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
But that grim future isn't a foregone conclusion.

"Until the next asteroid slams into Earth, the future of all known life hinges on people, more than on any other force," Daily said.

Nature is not an island

Conservationists have long assumed that once natural landscapes are fractured by human development or agriculture, migration corridors for wildlife are broken, blocking access to food, shelter and breeding grounds.

A scholarly theory was developed to estimate the number of species in such fractured landscapes, where patches of forest surrounded by farms resemble islands of natural habitat.

The "equilibrium theory of island biogeography" is a pillar of biological research -- its elegant equation to estimate the number of species in a habitat has almost reached the status of a scientific law, according to Chase Mendenhall, a Stanford doctoral student in biology and the study's lead author.

The theory drives the default strategy of conserving biodiversity by designating nature reserves. This strategy sees reserves as "islands in an inhospitable sea of human-modified habitats" and doesn't adequately account for biodiversity patterns in many human-dominated landscapes, according to the Stanford study.

"This paper shows that farmland and forest remnants can be more valuable for biodiversity than previously assumed," said Daniel Karp, who earned his PhD in biology at Stanford in 2013 and is currently a NatureNet postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.
"If we're valuing coffee fields and other human-made habitats at zero, we're doing a disservice to ourselves and wildlife," Mendenhall said.

To test the island theory against a more holistic theory of agricultural or countryside biogeography, the researchers turned to bats acutely sensitive to deforestation. The study focused on bat populations within a mosaic of forest fragments and farmland in Costa Rica and on islands in a large lake in Panama.

The researchers also did a meta-analysis of 29 studies of more than 700 bat species to bolster and generalize their findings globally.

Island biogeographic theory accurately predicted bats' responses to forest loss on the Panamanian islands system, but didn't come close to accurately forecasting similar responses in the Costa Rican countryside landscape.

For example, the island theory predicted that the Costa Rican coffee plantations would have inadequate habitat to sustain a single species of bat. In reality, plantations in the countryside typically supported 18 bat species, compared to the 23 to 28 supported by tropical forest fragments and nature reserves.

"Conservation opportunities for tropical wildlife are tightly linked to adequate management of these human-modified habitats," said co-author Christoph Meyer, a researcher at the University of Lisbon's Center for Environmental Biology.

Overall, as forest cover disappeared, the rate of species loss was "substantially and significantly higher" in the island ecosystem, and species abundances were "increasingly uneven" compared to the countryside ecosystem, the study found.

The reason for the discrepancies, according to the study's authors, is that island biogeographic theory was originally based on actual islands surrounded by water, and does not account for factors such as a countryside landscape's ability to support more species and slow extinction rates compared to true island ecosystems.

Especially in the tropics, island biogeographic theory's application is "distorting our understanding and conservation strategies in agriculture, the enterprise on which the future of biodiversity most critically hinges," the study's authors wrote.

"Not only do more species persist across the 'sea of farmland' than expected by island biogeographic theory, novel yet native species actually thrive there," said co-author Elizabeth Hadly, the Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor in Environmental Biology at Stanford and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. "This indicates that human-altered landscapes can foster more biological diversity than we anticipated."

A new approach

The fate of much of the world's wildlife is playing out in human-altered landscapes that are increasingly threatened by chemical inputs such as herbicides and pesticides. Biodiversity is not the only loser. People are losing many of nature's benefits such as water purification provided by forests and wetlands and pest control provided by birds and bats.

The study's findings point to the need for new approaches that integrate conservation and food production, to make agricultural lands more hospitable to wildlife by reducing chemical inputs, preserving fragments of forest and other natural habitats and rewarding farmers and ranchers for the benefits that result.

"A theory of countryside biogeography is pivotal to conservation strategy in the agricultural ecosystems that comprise roughly half of the global land surface and are likely to increase even further in the future," the researchers wrote.

Note:

[1] Story Source:

The story is based on materials provided by Texas A&M AgriLife Communications.

Source:

Texas A&M AgriLife Communications. "Food shortages could be most critical world issue by mid-century." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 April 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140417124704.htm>.

[2] Story Source:

The story is based on materials provided by Stanford University. The original article was written by Rob Jordan.

Journal Reference:
Chase D. Mendenhall, Daniel S. Karp, Christoph F. J. Meyer, Elizabeth A. Hadly, Gretchen C. Daily. Predicting biodiversity change and averting collapse in agricultural landscapes. Nature, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/nature13139

Source:

Stanford University. "Researchers rethink 'natural' habitat for wildlife." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 April 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140418161437.htm>.

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