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Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability

Current predictions from the United Nations estimate that by 2050 the global population will have grown to 10 billion. Feeding this number of people will require a 70% increase in food production, which will subsequently be accompanied by an increase in the use of water, energy and other inputs.

Over the past 50 years the majority of food production increases have been achieved by increased yield, higher cropping intensity, use of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers, and irrigation. However, yield growth from a number of crops has alarmingly slowed in current years. Wheat yields, for example, are estimated to be stagnating in 36% of global areas (Ray et al 2012). The intensification of some farming practices have been associated with negative environmental effects such as soil erosion, ground water contamination and loss of biodiversity. Despite these negative aspects we must find ways to increase yield to meet future demand, as increasing the area of land available for agriculture production is not a viable option because of the dramatic environmental consequences such as habitat and diversity loss, and increased production of greenhouse gases.

One potential solution to this problem is the approach of sustainable intensification (SI), which aims to increase food production from our existing land whilst minimising pressure on the environment. This will mean increasing yield with reduced input (including nutrients, water, energy, capital and land) as well as reducing unwanted outputs such as greenhouse gas pollution and water pollution, and maintaining the long-term sustainability of agro-ecosystems. In the past agriculture has generally focused on food production, often without consideration of the environment, similarly conservation strategies have not taken into account the need to produce food. If we are to achieve food security and prevent biodiversity loss, future agriculture production systems must address both concerns of sustainable intensification.

SI will require a major rethink of current food production systems, for example reducing the demand for resource intensive food such as meat and dairy, utilising a range of agriculture practices, reducing food waste and improving the political and economic governance of the food system. If we do achieve all, or some of these goals we will still also need to produce more food in a sustainable manner. This is where plant science can assist, for example by developing new crops and improving existing ones so that they have higher yields, increased tolerance to pest and pathogens, increased water and fertilizer use efficiency, are able to fix nitrogen, etc. Achieving this will require a pool of genetic diversity from which new and existing crops can be bred. At present we rely on a relative small number of plant species to provide us with the majority of calories that we consume and we utilise only a fraction of the genetic diversity of these species. To meet our future needs plant researchers will need to document, understand and exploit the wealth of diversity that exist in germplasm banks across the globe to inform future breeding programmes.

The GPC will first concentrate its activities in this area via the Diversity Seek and Digital Seed Bank Initiative.

References

Ray et al. (2012)
Recent patterns of crop yield and growth stagnation
Nature Comms 3, 1293