Dive deeper into the subjects covered in this article thanks to the valuable resources listed below:
An incredibly insightful book to discover the world of insects and why they are essential to life on Earth. Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson
The Netflix Documentary “Breaking Boundaries: The Science of our Planet”, narrated by Sir David Attenorough, guides the viewers through Röckstrom’s planetary boundaries. This framework, developed in 2009 and updated since then, is used as a basis among research and action groups.
A helpful summary visualization on Land Use Challenges by the Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy, the Chatham House Sustainability Accelerator.
Challenges of Modern Agriculture
One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century is to feed a growing population with sustainable and healthy solutions. The FAO (2017) suggested that by 2050 agricultural production will have to rise by 50 percent compared to 2012 to meet projected demand. Today, meat and fish are the main sources of protein in many countries, however, evidence has shown the negative impact of livestock on the environment. In 2019, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that the global food system was responsible for 21 to 37 percent of GHG emissions while according to the World Resources Institute, a research group, cars, trains, ships and planes produce a total of 16% (20). This further reinforces the fact that in order to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels, agriculture is a key area where innovative and ambitious developments are needed.
This article will be divided into 3 chapters; firstly, understanding the key challenges of modern agriculture, secondly, discerning the new methods of agriculture available to farmers, and finally, analysing the different diets available to environmentally- and socially-conscious consumers.
In this article, challenges for modern agriculture have been broadly divided into 4 categories namely: land use, farmland degradation, increased urbanization, and food waste.
The effectiveness of our land use is taking a bigger space in the public debate; globally, agricultural land area is approximately five billion hectares, or 38 percent of the global land surface (12) of which 70% is used for livestock production (10). Feed-to-meat conversion rates (how much feed is needed to produce a 1 kg increase in weight) vary widely depending on the class of the animal and the production practices used. Typically, in order to produce 1 kg of live animal weight, the following quantities of feed are needed: 2.5 kg for chicken, 5 kg for pork and 10 kg for beef (United States production system used as benchmark). Most of our land is used not to feed human beings but to feed animals which in turn will be fed to humans. This is inefficient and explains why alternative agricultural land strategies will be needed to better feed the world. An FAO report published in 2013 for instance highlighted the potential of insects as a new source of proteins since the production of 1 kg of live animal weight of crickets requires as little as 1.7 kg of feed. Today, every person has a football pitch-sized portion of land to provide them with food, clothes, and fuel, this is expected to be reduced by a quarter by 2050 (3).
International trade is a central piece of the puzzle when it comes to land use. Comparative advantages, resulting from different geographical ecosystems and political decisions, can lead to export-specialization in certain goods, import-dependence in others. For instance, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean have been net importers of food and agricultural products on average and have been experiencing trade deficit for all periods between 1990 and 2016 (15). Changes in one country’s land use policy towards more sustainable practices can lower production, which in turn, might result in an obligation for other countries to adjust the intensification and specialization policies to a greater ecological costs (3).
Climate change is modifying the ways land is used due to changes in weather and more frequent extreme events. Land use must be adjusted to mitigate the risks, lower the pressure on biodiversity, and to protect the environment.
Soil erosion, caused by intensive farming and natural processes, is an increasingly urgent issue as it becomes more difficult to grow nutritious food around the world (14). Crops grow best when fertile topsoil is abundant as essential nutrients can be consumed by the plant and carbon - a vital element - is stored efficiently. The FAO stated in 2017 that, if current rates of degradation continue, all of the world's top soil could be gone within 60 years (21).
Soil erosion occurs naturally when it is exposed to strong winds, hard rains, and flowing water. However, certain agricultural practices worsen this process by leaving the soil exposed such as soil plowing, soil clearing of weeds whose roots help to keep moisture, livestock overgrazing, or deforestation for future plantations (16).
The impacts of soil erosion are increased water depletion and ensuing desertification. An eroded soil cannot retain water properly since no roots help it to keep moisture. The water washes away the soil and its nutrients into rivers and lakes, hence impoverishing the land. Water accumulation therefore occurs in another area, having brought the natural saltiness of the soil with it. When the water evaporates, salt remains on the land and paralyzes the roots of local plants, impeding growth and contaminating drinking water supply (22). This process is called soil salinization.
Farmland degradation is also caused by the unbalanced use of fertilizers and excess pesticides. To grow, plants perform photosynthesis but also require a variety of minerals. Three elements in particular are key: phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen. Historically, fertilizers were always used to enhance production yields. However, in the last fifty years, the weight of artificial fertilisers applied globally has increased twenty-fold. Fertiliser overuse leads to reduced botanical diversity (e.g. devastating the population of essential pollinators), polluted freshwater habitats (e.g. allowing invasive algae to proliferate), or contaminating our drinking water. Rockström (2009) also highlighted the dramatic consequences of fertilizer components such as nitrate, flowing from crops to rivers and ultimately to the ocean. The ensuing rising acidity threatens certain organisms such as corals and planktons which in turn modify the whole dynamic of these ecosystems. The biochemical flows’ planetary boundary is one which already has been crossed as a result of human activity.
Source: Rockström’s Planetary Boundaries (2009)
As with fertilizers, pesticides use has increased unremittingly over the years (13). Pesticides help to prevent, control, destroy, repel, or attract any biological organism considered as pest (1). While prayers and ritual sacrifices were the first means of crop protection in the first 5000 years of agriculture, chemical pesticides were introduced as far back as 4500 years ago (13). This changed in the 1940s with the advent of industrial chemistry and synthetic pesticides. Today, about 900 different “active ingredients” - toxic to some sort of pest - are licensed in the USA, and about 500 in Europe. Cascading problems have arisen since, such as the new resistance that pest insects developed and the fact that natural enemies of pests were also destroyed by the chemicals, hence creating a dramatic vicious circle.
Monoculture Farming: Productively Damaging
Monoculture - the practice where farmers grow a single crop in a given area - is widely used in industrial farming systems due to its efficiency in planting and harvesting (13). Continuous monoculture where a unique crop is grown over the years, however, is unsustainable as it works against the natural ecosystem. Growing different crops lead to a variety of nutrients in the soil and to increased biodiversity. Monoculture, on the other hand, impoverishes the soil and can lead to an increase in pests which strive on a single crop. Additionally, the root system is often weaker on such farms which leads to water being easily lost as a result of soil erosion (5).
Inadequate crop rotation and improperly orchestrated fallow periods (leaving a piece land uncultivated to improve the quality of the soil) further escalate farmland degradation. These practices are necessary to enhance moisture conservation, to restore soil fertility, to increase carbon concentration in soil, or to nurture weeds and insects for natural pest control.
Urbanization is defined as the increasing share of a nation's population living in urban areas (and thus a declining share living in rural areas) (19). A strong association exists between urbanization and political strength and economic success thanks to the improved living conditions through economies of scale and the proximity to useful infrastructure and services in urban areas. While developed countries see a new tendency for de-urbanization post-covid (23), the urbanization trend in developing countries is only expected to increase as this usually entails higher levels of economic prosperity, education, and better access to basic needs (safe water, sanitation etc.).
Urbanization also has strong implications in terms of food consumption habits. Rural residents tend to eat more cereales, tubers and roots while urban residents, who often have higher income and access to a greater variety of food, will favor meat, processed food, varied fruits and vegetables, and dairy products (19;4;11). These energy intensive foods (and negative health impacts caused by diets richer in salt, fat, and sugar) further strain the global agricultural production system and increase overall GHG emissions.
In 2011, the FAO presented the staggering statistics that ⅓ of all food produced is wasted every year. The issue of food waste became of serious public concern and was included in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals developed by the United Nations. The EU (2016) estimated that 70% of food waste occurs in the household and 30% in the production and processing sectors. The distribution of the food lost and wasted along the supply chain varies across regions. North America, Europe, Japan and China lose or waste around 15 percent of food in the harvest and post-harvest stages while the proportion is higher (around 20 percent) in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. More than 10 percent of the world’s total energy consumption is for food that is lost or wasted (11). When food is wasted at any point in the supply chain, the water, soil, biodiversity, natural resources, and other inputs used to produce it are also lost which accentuates climate change.
Distribution of food losses and waste along the supply chain11
The food waste issue can be tackled by adequate legislation, social initiatives, and through education. The law often does not set strict guidelines and limits as to the amount of waste produced in the value chain. The European Union Farm to Fork Strategy, at the heart of the European Green Deal, aims to tackle this problem.
Social and business endeavors such as food banks collecting leftovers from supermarkets and restaurants or digital apps for the general public (e.g. Too Good To Go) make a serious difference in this field and help to educate citizens on this matter.
Evolution of the Agricultural Supply Chain
In the EU, around 11 million farms produce agricultural products which are processed by 300,000 firms in the food and drink industry. In 2010, it was estimated that 70% of all farms in the EU-28 were smaller than 5 ha and only 2.7% were larger than 100 ha (7). The agri-food supply chain has witnessed important evolutions in recent years which have brought closer the small farm to the end consumer, at times even leaving out the wholesaler. These alternative models of “farm to fork” chains include, for example, direct (on farm) sale, pick your own; box schemes; farmers’ markets; collective farmer shops, community-supported agriculture, solidarity purchasing groups, collective buying groups. In these models, relationships and close communication are at the center in order to better share the value with the primary producers. Transparency, democracy, equity, and access are the core values of these shorter supply chains (2). These models remain niche and a major challenge for the future of these models is found in their scaling up. Today, 97% of all food production still goes through the conventional market structures which are dominated by well-established and highly consolidated actors.
Nota bene: Fish production and consumption has increased consequently over the past decades, leading to a boom in the aquaculture sector which accounts for 50 percent of world fish production (10). Reports of habitat destruction, water pollution, and food-safety scares have started to arise, creating uncertainty in regards to the sustainability of the practice. The challenges for modern agriculture in the fishing industry should be the focus of a separate article.
The association "The Future Circle - rethinking the economy, healing planet earth e.V." is a globally active and collaborative association that works in the service of mankind for an economy that is suitable for grandchildren. We inspire and enable companies and organizations to establish sustainable, successful business models with a positive effect on our planet and our society in the interests of future generations and to actively live them. Founded in 2020, experienced managers, managing directors, consultants and scientists are involved in projects, events and publications for a new approach and thinking in corporate management.
Abubakar, Y., Tijjani, H., Egbuna, C., Oluwaseun Adetunji, C., Kala, S., Kryeziu, T.L., Ifemeje, J. C., Patrick-Iwuanyanwu, K. C. (2020) “Chapter 3 - Pesticides, History, and Classification”, Academic Press. Available at: URL link
Berti, G. and Mulligan, C. (2016) “Competitiveness of Small Farms and Innovative Food Supply Chains: The Role of Food Hubs in Creating Sustainable Regional and Local Food Systems”, Sustainability. Available at: URL link
Chatham House (2020) “Land-use Challenges”. Available at: URL link
Dyck, J. and Regmi, A. (2001) “Effects of Urbanization on Global Food Demand”, Economic Research Service/USDA. Available at: URL link
Earth Observing System (2020) “Monoculture Farming In Agriculture Industry”. Available at: URL link
EU (2016) “EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste”. Available at: URL link
EU (2017) “The Food Supply Chain”. Available at: URL link
FAO (2009) “How to feed the world in 2050”. Available at: URL link
FAO (2011) “Food Loss and Waste Database”. Available at: URL link
FAO (2013) “Edible insects - Future prospects for food and feed security”. Available at: URL link
FAO (2017) “The future of food and agriculture. Trends and challenges.” Available at: URL link
FAO (2020) “Land use in agriculture by the numbers”. Available at: URL link
Goulson, D. (2021) “Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse”. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
Gray, R. (2019) “Why soil is disappearing from farm”. Available at: URL link
Mwangi, E. N., Chen, F., & Njoroge, D. (2021). Governance and net-import dependency on food and agricultural products in Sub-Saharan Africa: does any causality exist?. European Journal of Government and Economics, 10(1), 80-104. Available at: URL link
NRDC (2021) “Soil Erosion 101”. Available at: URL link
Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F.S. Chapin, III, E.F. Lambin, T.M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H.J. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C.A. de Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P.K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R.W. Corell, V.J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J.A. Foley, (2009) “A safe operating space for humanity”, Nature. Available at: URL link
Salaheen, S. and Biswas, D. (2019) “Organic Farming Practices: Integrated Culture Versus Monoculture”, ScienceDirect. Available at: URL link
Satterthwaite, D., McGranahan, G., & Tacoli, C. (2010). Urbanization and its implications for food and farming. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 365(1554), 2809–2820. Available at: URL link
The Economist (2021) “Treating beef like coal would make a big dent in greenhouse-gas emissions”. Available at: URL link
The Guardian (2019) “The world needs topsoil to grow 95% of its food – but it's rapidly disappearing”. Available at: URL link
Vidal, J. (2019) “Irrigation, drought, sea level rise and more are causing salt to build up in soils around the world. What can we do?”. Available at: URL link
Wharton University of Pennsylvania (2020) “The Post-COVID-19 World Will Be Less Global and Less Urban”. Available at: URL link