As the global population increases, so does the number of mouths to feed. As we observe World Population Day on July 11, the good news is that in addition to providing food, innovations in sustainable agriculture can provide a solution to many of the challenges that a growing population presents.
"Agriculture is emerging as a solution to mitigating climate change, reducing public health problems and costs, making cities more livable, and creating jobs in a stagnant global economy," said Danielle Nierenberg, Director of Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project, a two-year evaluation of environmentally sustainable agricultural innovations to alleviate hunger.
This year, the world's population will hit 7 billion, according to the United Nations. Reaching this unprecedented level of population density has prompted the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) to launch a "7 Billion Actions" campaign to promote individuals and organizations that are using successful new techniques for tackling global development challenges. By sharing these innovations in an open forum, the campaign aims to foster communication and collaboration as our world becomes more populated and increasingly interdependent.
Not even demographers can actually forecast how many people will be added to world population over the coming century, noted Robert Engelman, a population expert and Worldwatch Executive Director. As more women and their partners gain access to reproductive health services and manage their own childbearing, average family size has fallen significantly in recent decades and could continue to do so, assuming expanded support for reproductive health and improvements in women's autonomy and status. The likelihood of continued population growth for some time, however, remains high. And that will add to the need to harness the ingenuity of human beings to sustain both people and the planet.
"We'll have to learn how to moderate our consumption of materials and energy and to jumpstart new technologies that conserve them," Engelman said. Innovations in farming will be among the most important: with planning, agriculture can operate not only as a less-consumptive industry, but also one that works in harmony with the environment.
Researchers with Nourishing the Planet (www.NourishingthePlanet.org) traveled to 25 countries across sub-Saharan Africa to meet with more than 350 farmers groups, NGOs, government agencies, and scientists, highlighting small-scale agricultural efforts that are helping to improve peoples' livelihoods by providing them with food and income. The findings are documented in the recently released report, State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.
Nourishing the Planet's research in Africa has unveiled innovative and cost-effective approaches to agriculture where farmers are treating land as a resource rather than solely as a means for food production. Many of these solutions are scalable and can be adapted to farming systems around the world. "The global connections go beyond Africa. Everyone is in this together in more ways than one," said Nierenberg.
Nourishing the Planet recommends four ways that agriculture is helping to address the challenges that a growing global population will bring.
Urban agriculture for nutritious food and a cooler climate
The U.N. predicts that 65 percent of the global population will live in cities by 2050. Urban agriculture provides an increasing number of city residents with fruits and vegetables, leading to improved nutrition and food security. Urban farms are already gaining popularity around the world, from the Victory Programs' ReVision Urban Farm in Boston, to Lufa Farms in Montreal, to the slums of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya.
Farming for employment and education
Opportunities in agriculture can reduce poverty and empower a growing population. In Los Angeles county, the organization Farmscape Gardens has helped tackle a 16 percent unemployment rate by hiring workers to establish and maintain edible gardens. To teach the local community about food and agriculture, L.A.'s Fremont High School established a school garden of 1.5 acres that is open to students and the greater community. And in Uganda, project DISC (Developing Innovations in School Cultivation) partnered with Slow Food International to develop 17 school gardens that are used to educate students about growing, harvesting, and preparing nutritious local foods.
Agroecology for a healthier environment
Agroecology, which offers numerous benefits to the environment while also feeding people, includes organic agriculture, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, and evergreen agriculture. In Niger, farmers promote the re-greening of dried farmland by allowing spontaneous regeneration of woody species. The restored growth has provided farmers with wind breaks, decreased evaporation, sequestered carbon, and provided non-timber forest products. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has partnered with representatives from metropolitan Washington, D.C. to create the Chesapeake Bay Program watershed partnership. Through collaboration, the group has developed policies, laws, incentives and best practices for farmers whose production zone lies within the local watershed. These agroecological practices, including cover crops, planting riparian forest butters, and practicing conservation tillage, have helped preserve the Bay.
Innovations in food waste to make the most of what we have
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, industrialized countries waste 222 million tons of food annually, or almost as much as sub-Saharan Africa's 230 million tons of net food production per year. Decreasing food waste makes it possible to feed people across the planet without increasing agricultural production. In Washington, D.C., the D.C. Central Kitchen Project partners with area restaurants and food suppliers to pick up food that would otherwise go to waste. Volunteers prepare the food and redistribute it as meals to the city's poor. In central and eastern Africa, a partnership between Bayer Crop Science and the International Potato Center hopes to develop a sweet potato that is resistant to pests and diseases, which are responsible for 50 to 100 percent of crop losses among poor farmers in the region.
State of the World 2011 is accompanied by informational materials including briefing documents, summaries, an innovations database, videos, and podcasts, all available at www.NourishingthePlanet.org. The project's findings are being disseminated to a wide range of agricultural stakeholders, including government ministries, agricultural policymakers, and farmer and community networks, as well as the increasingly influential nongovernmental environmental and development communities.