Researcher: How to make food supplies secure and sustainable

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This article is part of our special report Agriculture.

Proper crop nutrition and sharing of knowledge and technology between developing and developed countries can help address the food needs of the planet’s growing population, says a top researcher for the Oslo-based fertiliser company Yara.

Joachim Lammel is head of product and application research and development at Yara’s Research Centre in Hanninghof, Germany. Excerpts of an interview with EURACTIV’s Timothy Spence follow:

Food security is a major theme internationally and in discussions on the EU’s farm policy. What concerns do you have about food security going into the future?

Joachim Lammel is head of product and application research and development at Yara’s Research Centre in Hanninghof, Germany. Excerpts of an interview with EURACTIV’s Timothy Spence follow:

Food security is a major theme internationally and in discussions on the EU’s farm policy. What concerns do you have about food security going into the future?

Our concern is in principle based on the fact that the growth in global crop productivity – which means the annual productivity increase – is below the growth of the population. … Population growth drives the demand and the growth rate in population is very well known, which means in an ideal world agricultural productivity would grow with this growth in demand, but that doesn’t happen.

For example, the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations said that in 2000, the number of malnourished people should be [halved] by 2015, and at that time we had about 700 million undernourished people, and in 2012 we have about 1 billion. The movement was actually the opposite of what the goal was, and that is a sign of food scarcity. …

Today wheat is traded above €200 [per metric tonne] while from the '90s to 2007 the average grain prices was €110, €120 – and now we talk about numbers beyond €200. And that is again a reflection of the shortage … If grain prices doubles, naturally the consumption goes down which means the inventory numbers stay equal. But if you think about how to nourish the world and how to get stability, it shows that we are [heading] towards an unstable tract.

How do you address that – how do you reverse this trend of declining production, short of stopping population growth?

We aim at creating partnerships with industry partners throughout the world – at the [World] Economic Forum there was a publication, a new vision for agriculture – very interesting reading – where we say everyone involved in the agricultural sector should join forces to address it …

It’s beyond individual companies, it’s probably even beyond individual countries. This has to be a joint effort but we believe it is doable. It’s not a question of lack of technical knowledge, it’s absolutely doable. But it requires that more focus and attention is put behind this challenge.

Studies show that productivity of land in mature markets is levelling off, or declining in some cases. What should be done to change that? Does it mean more land going into production?

First of all, it would be right and appropriate not to increase agricultural area for many reasons – to protect biodiversity, to protect [against] climate change. So in our mind, to employ larger areas for agricultural land is not the solution. …

We see a huge potential in the world outside Europe because there are so many farmers who do not employ current knowledge and technology … Very often you find in Africa, there is a lot of land which is used very inefficiently and if the people would get access to knowledge and technology, they could double, triple or quadruple their yields very easily.

If you take it from a global approach, there is a lot of potential with knowledge transfer in countries where agriculture is developing, and in countries where agriculture is already well-developed. Research and innovation [can help] develop further from the current yield level.

Are you saying that Europe’s best exports should be its knowledge and technology?

In my mind it’s not an either or. Whether it’s Europe or North America, a lot of agricultural research has been done historically in the developed world … and it’s more than appropriate to share that with the global agricultural community …

Smallholders in Africa or Latin America – or wherever – can only increase income and produce more food by taking more land into production, as increasing productivity is not possible, but it is creating a problem which is beyond his imagination.

The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] published in its last report that about 12% of the global greenhouse gas emissions are related to land use change due to agriculture. This 12% is about equivalent to all emissions from EU27 – not just agriculture but industry and traffic. … The consequence of this has led to a position of Yara as a company to say we advocate and support the idea of not extending the agricultural area, and this is based on the fact it would be very beneficial for the climate, it would beneficial for biodiversity.

And we believe it can be done and still feed 9 billion people on the existing arable land if people get access to knowledge and technology and if there is a focus in the industrial world on maintaining a healthy and productive agricultural. We believe it can be done.

And this can be done through crop nutrition?

This is one component. We are far away from saying crop nutrition can solve this challenge, but it is one component as plant breeding, water management and … storage infrastructure.

I see that your company has just signed a deal in Qatar to turn desert into cropland using solar-powered desalination and other technology. Is this the future – that the future ‘green revolution’ in agriculture will be in the desert?

On paper it should work. The purpose of this project is make it work in practice … but this still very much a research project and feasibility study.

Let me turn for a moment to fertiliser runoff and pollution that the European and international environment agencies talk about – the nitrate pollutants that are affecting the Baltic and other areas. What it being done to address this?

The number one target is to make sure that fertilisers are used correctly, which means that farmers don’t apply more than what is necessary and that they apply it at the time when it is appropriate. And that goes back to what we discussed, that you have a plan of how fertilisers are managed.

There are a lot of data that show that if fertilisers are managed correctly, the discharge of nutrients from land is not much different than what the discharge would be if no fertilisers are applied. Only if too much fertiliser is applied, then there is an increase in discharges – there are increasing losses to the environment.

Is this the problem we have in Europe – on the French coast for example …

I’m not so sure it is the sole cause of the problem because it is a multifactoral issue, but it contributes. It’s very easy said to apply the right quantity … The issue is that agriculture operates in nature and not every year is the same. If the climate would be constant, to optimise agriculture is very easy.

But since the climate is different – you sometimes have a dry spring, a wet spring, you have a drought and the drought means less crop growth, and you should naturally reduce the fertiliser rate – all these climatic conditions change the yield potential and that makes it difficult for the farmer … People should adjust within the growing season how much fertiliser they actually require …

We believe fertiliser should be applied in several doses throughout the growing season but a farmer needs some tools to judge the requirements of the crop and we do research to develop such tools.

The buffer strips and ecological focus areas that European Commissioner [Dacian] Ciolo? is proposing, these will also help?

Buffer strips are designed to reduce the runoff. They are largely for surface runoff and they are also designed to avoid a direct intake of nutrients or plant protection products into the water.

Is this a good proposal that he is making – it seems to be very controversial?

I think it’s a good proposal. The debate is about how wide should the buffer strip be – and scientists tend to have different opinions …. 

Read a related news article here.

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