Greater food system efficiency and curbs to the expansion of cropland are necessary to prevent the collapse of global ecosystems, says a report presented today (24 January) by the UN at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The report, by the UN Environment Programme’s science think tank the International Resource Panel (IRP), says that policymakers must break the link between greater resource consumption and human well-being.
The authors say that rising demand for food could lead to a 320 to 850 million hectare (ha) expansion of global cropland, putting greater strain on the environment’s capacity for regeneration.
“Expansion of such magnitude is simply not compatible with the imperative of sustaining the basic life-supporting services that ecosystems provide such as maintaining soil productivity, regulating water resources, sustaining forest cover or conserving biodiversity,” they say.
Expansion of cropland should be limited to between 8 and 37%, says the report, ‘Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth’.
Agriculture accounts for more than 30% of world land area and around 1.5 billion ha are used for crops. The area used for growing crops increased by some 11% between 1961 and 2007, with most of the expansion in South America, Africa and Asia. The amount decreased in Europe and North America.
Technological innovations such as fertilisers and machinery and irrigation have contributed significantly to increases in food production over the last 50 years. But they have also had impacts on the environment and health, through soil erosion, eutrophication, salinisation and contamination of food and water reserves from agrochemicals, the reports says.
The IRP calls on governments to take immediate action to prevent the degradation of land and soils and to carry out measures to regenerate destroyed areas, rather than moving agricultural production to new sites, through deforestation, for example.
“Cropland expansion at the cost of tropical forests and savannahs induces severe changes in the living environment with uncertain repercussions,” the reports says.
European resource targets needed, campaigners say
Demand for land to grow arable crops also has social consequences. Communities in Indonesia have been displaced by companies so to grow crops to meet European biofuels demand, campaigners say.
“Today’s report shows how Europe is consuming more than its fair share of land, at the expense of other world regions, and suggests that Europe needs to reduce its consumption of cropland by around a third,” read a statement by Friends of the Earth Europe (FOEE), an environmental campaign group.
“Europe urgently needs to start taking the issue of land seriously by starting to measure Europe’s land footprint, setting EU-wide reduction targets, and putting in place policies that will reduce our land consumption,” said FOEE’s resource use campaigner, Ariadna Rodrigo.