Global Study Reveals New Warning Signals:

Degraded Agricultural Lands Threaten World’s Food Production Capacity

Released from Washington, D.C. and Dresden, Germany

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(Agricultural experts from IFPRI and CGIAR are available for interviews Wednesday-Friday, May 17-19. Please call 703-820-2244 to schedule time.)

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Nearly forty percent of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded, which could undermine the long-term productive capacity of those soils, according to scientists at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), who carried out the most comprehensive mapping to date of global agriculture.

The evidence compiled by IFPRI suggests that soil degradation has already had significant impacts on the productivity of about 16 percent of the globe’s agricultural land. Combining the new map of agricultural land with existing expert assessments of soil degradation suggests that almost 75 percent of crop land in Central America is seriously degraded, 20 percent in Africa (mostly pasture), and 11 percent Asia.

“The results of this innovative mapping raise all kinds of red flags about the world’s ability to feed itself in the future,” says Ismail Serageldin, World Bank Vice President for Special Programs and Chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). IFPRI is one of 16 research centers that comprise the CGIAR.

“The economic and social effects of agricultural land degradation have been much more significant in developing countries than in industrialized countries,” says Dr. Serageldin. “These are precisely the regions where the greatest growth in food production will be needed, but where all indications are that achieving such growth will be the most difficult.”

The analysis of the world’s agroecosystems comes from satellites, maps, and tabular data sets. IFPRI’s scientists have undertaken this project in partnership with the World Resources Institute (WRI) as part of a larger international initiative, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a comprehensive multi-year, scientific assessment that will be launched this year.

The agroecosystem report is one of five in-depth studies supporting results which will be highlighted in World Resources 2000-2001, People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life. This flagship publication, to be released in September 2000, will sound the alarm about widespread decline in nearly all the world’s ecosystems.

“Halting the decline of the planet’s life-support systems may be the most difficult challenge humanity has ever faced,” said Jonathan Lash, WRI President. “The key is to provide people with information and incentives to think about the capacity of ecosystems to produce not only goods, such as food and timber, but also critical services, such as water purification, carbon storage, and biodiversity.”

According to Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, IFPRI Director General, these threats to the world’s food production capacity are compounded by three disturbing trends:

  • 1.5 billion additional people will be on the planet by 2020, almost all in poorer developing countries;
  • the natural fertility of agricultural soils is generally declining; and
  • it is increasingly difficult to find productive new land to expand the agricultural base.

Competition for water will further magnify constraints to food production. While inputs and new technologies may succeed in offsetting these declining conditions for the foreseeable future, the challenge of meeting human needs may grow ever more difficult over longer periods of time.

Soil Degradation on Agricultural Lands

The agricultural mapping is based on cutting-edge satellite imagery. It is the first study that attempts to illustrate the “area intensity” of agricultural land use across the planet — the share of land in each location devoted to agriculture.

The analysis says crop production can still grow significantly on a global scale over the next several decades. Nevertheless, the underlying conditions of many of the world’s agroecosystems, particularly those in developing countries, are not good. Soil degradation, including erosion and nutrient depletion, is undermining the long-term capacity of many agricultural systems.

The mapping exercise includes the first global assessment of how soil degradation has affected land specifically in agricultural ecosystems, rather than the entire land surface of the planet. When considering only agricultural land, interpretation of available data suggests that up to 40 percent of agricultural lands are seriously affected by soil degradation.

One of the most common management techniques used to maintain the condition of agroecosystems is the application of inorganic fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) or manure. Too little can lead to soil ‘nutrient mining’ (amount of nutrients extracted by harvested crops is greater than the amount of nutrients applied), and too much can lead to nutrient leaching (washing away of excess nutrients contaminating ground and surface water).

IFPRI experts have overlaid maps of nutrient balance for Latin America and the Caribbean with trends in yields to identify potential degradation “hot spots,” where yield growth is slowing and soil fertility is declining. These areas, where the capacity of agroecosystems to continue producing food using current production methods appears most threatened, include northeast Brazil, and sections of Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Paraguay.

The findings of significant losses of soil fertility from IFPRI analysis of nutrient depletion in Latin America and the Caribbean are consistent with other sub-regional studies from Sub-Saharan Africa, China, South and Southeast Asia and Central America.

Agricultural Growth

Over most of history — including much of the 20th century — agricultural output has been increased mainly by bringing more land into production through conversion of forests and natural grasslands. The limits of geographic expansion were reached many years ago in densely populated parts of India, China, Java, Egypt and Western Europe.

The total area of land used for agriculture rose from 4.55 billion hectares in 1966 to 4.93 billion in 1996.

Intensification of production, obtaining more output from a given area of agricultural land, has thus become a growing necessity. In some regions, particularly in Asia, this has been achieved primarily through producing multiple crops each year in irrigated agroecosystems using new, short-duration crop varieties.

There has also been notable intensification of agricultural land use around major cities (and to an unexpected extent, within cities), particularly for high-value perishables such as dairy and vegetables, but also to meet subsistence needs.

Over the past three decades, the per capita increase in production of the world’s three major cereal crops has been positive (up by 37% for maize, 20% for rice, and 15% for wheat) and prices in real terms for these crops have dropped (down by 43% for maize, 33% for rice, and 38% for wheat). Lowering the prices of major staples directly benefits the poor who spend a large part of their income on purchasing food. The main reasons for these successes include:

  • a continuous flow of new production technologies such as improved seeds, better management practices, and improved pest and disease control, all areas in which the CGIAR has been heavily involved;
  • the commercialization of farming that has increased the availability and quality of production inputs, and created more efficient means of marketing outputs, a direct result of good public policies; and
  • the expansion of international trade that has minimized price differences between locations and seasons, and fostered production patterns based on comparative advantage.

Global demand for cereals is projected to increase by 40 percent, with 85 percent of the increase in demand coming from developing countries. Meat demand is expected to increase by 58 percent, with 20 percent of the increase coming from developing countries, and demand for roots and tubers by 37 percent, with 97 percent of this increase coming from the developing world. Demand for fruits, vegetables and seasonings as well as nonfood farm products will also rise.

But each improvement in agricultural productivity is becoming more difficult and more costly. There is increasing evidence that growth rates in cereal yields have slowed in both developed and developing countries. And future increases in food production are likely to be more difficult because a complex range of environmental and social factors must now be taken into account while developing new crop technologies. “Agricultural research will become even more crucial in the 21st century than in the last century as we seek to grow more food on the same amount of land and water without causing ecological damage,” says Dr. Pinstrup-Andersen.

Causes for Concern

The unprecedented scale of agricultural expansion and intensification raises two principal concerns. First, there is a growing concern over the vulnerability of the productive capacity of many agroecosystems to the stresses imposed on them by the intensification of agriculture. Can technological advances and increased inputs continue to offset the depletion of soil fertility and fresh water resources? As soil fertility reduces and water becomes scarcer, what will be the impact on food prices?

Second are the broader concerns about the negative external impacts of agricultural production that are often accentuated by intensification. These negative impacts include additional stresses that agroecosystems can generate beyond their own boundaries but which are not properly reflected in agroecosystem management and production costs, nor in the prices consumers pay for food and fiber goods.

At a watershed level, decreased river flows and groundwater levels, increased soil erosion from hillside farming on downstream fisheries and hydraulic infrastructure, and the damage to both aquatic ecosystems and human health arising from fertilizer and pesticide residues in water sources or on crops are examples of negative impact. Loss of habitat and biodiversity from putting land to agricultural uses, as well as narrowing of the genetic base and the genetic diversity of domesticated plant and animal species currently in use, are important concerns. Increasingly, agriculture is recognized as influencing climate change by altering global carbon, nitrogen and hydrological cycles.

Among the main findings of the preliminary analysis are the following:

  • Land-abundant developed countries still possess the physical capacity to increase food production significantly. However, because of more intensive use of the existing arable land, and public policies that allow farmers to “set-aside” a proportion of their land, some 40 million hectares of land have been taken out of agricultural production in the United States, Western Europe and Oceania over the last three decades.
  • Significant segments of the populations in the poorest countries cannot afford to purchase additional food. Thus the vast majority of new staple food supplies will need to come from domestic production in developing countries facing high population growth rates and increased threats to agricultural ecosystems.
  • Most of the global agricultural production, with the exception of dairy and perishable vegetable production, still derives from intensively managed irrigated and rain-fed crop fields located away from major concentrations of population. However, urban and near-urban agricultural growth has accelerated, especially in developing countries.
  • While the net global expansion of agricultural area has been modest in recent decades, intensification has been rapid. Irrigated area grew by more than 70 percent over the past thirty years. While irrigated systems account for only 5.4 percent of agricultural land globally, they reach 35 percent in South Asia, 15 percent in East Asia, and 7 percent in South East Asia.

The analysis draws particular attention to the need for significant improvements in the quantity and quality of environmental information in the context of agriculture. Furthermore, there is an urgent need for greater emphasis on monitoring land cover, soil degradation, and other indicators in order to better understand environmental effects and their relationship to agricultural productivity. Agricultural researchers must look at the so-called “win-win” solutions that can improve both agricultural output and environmental conditions, and explore tradeoffs involved.

The primary focus of agriculture is, and must remain, the provision of an adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices, a challenge that farmers and scientists have met with considerable success in the past. This golden era saw global food prices drop by 40 percent in real terms in the past 25 years because of crop yield increases, enlightened public policies, and investments in agricultural research. The world’s farmers now provide 24 percent more food per person on average than in 1961, although population has nearly doubled over the same period. But more challenges loom on the horizon, and as this preliminary analysis shows, maintaining agricultural ecosystems will be the key.

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Contact Information:

At IFPRI, please contact Stanley Wood (s.wood@cgiar.org or at Wye College, UK, tel: 011-44-1233-812401 extension 360 until June 30, 2000) or Kate Sebastian (k.sebastian@cgiar.org tel: 202-862-5600).

At WRI, please contact Adlai Amor (aamor@wri.org tel: 202-729-7736), Media Director.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research is a global agricultural research network that works to promote food security, poverty eradication, and the sound management of natural resources in the developing world. (www.cgiar.org)

Future Harvest builds public understanding of the importance of international agricultural research to global peace, prosperity, environmental renewal, health, and alleviation of human suffering. (www.futureharvest.org)

The International Food Policy Research Institute aims at fostering sustainable economic growth and combating poverty through better government policies. (www.cgiar.org/ifpri)

The World Resources Institute provides information, ideas, and solutions to global environmental and development problems (www.wri.org/wri)

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