Not protecting our food supply 

U.N. and local reports sketch a scary future

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It barely snows all winter. Then suddenly, just when we should be digging out our spring things, we get dumps of record snowfall.

This winter's record spate of more and more severe storms — leaving about a third of south England and Wales under water; causing one of B.C.'s worst avalanche seasons; cancelling more than 100,000 U.S. flights — are exactly what scientists have been warning us about for years with climate change.

It all made headlines, along with the huge disruptions and costs in human and economic terms. But what will a rapidly changing climate do to our food supply?

A new report from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on the state of the world's land and resources for food and agricultural production has just been released and the subtitle — Managing Systems at Risk — says it all.

The report, written by a team of international experts and institutions, including the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Berne, concludes that, overall, we're doing a frighteningly poor job of managing our resources for food production. And climate change is only one of the exacerbating factors.

"In a crowded world with populations still rising and consumption patterns changing, humankind has not done enough to plan and manage the future development of land and water resources," the report states.

"After decades of underinvestment, poor management and lack of governance, the evidence is widely apparent. From dramatic mudslides on slopes too steep to bear human settlement, to unprecedented inundation of whole river basins, the impact on human lives from extreme meteorological events makes the news."

What does not make the news, however, is something quieter, more insidious — what the report calls the creeping degradation of the land and water systems that provide global food security and rural livelihoods.

To put things in perspective, I often remind myself these days that the world now supports nearly three times as many people as it did when I was born. By all estimates from the U.N. and beyond, in the next 30 to 40 years we'll need to accommodate 40 per cent more humans than we now have on the planet, for a total of nine to 11 billion people.

The need for increased food production tracks an even steeper trajectory. As we move towards 2050, rising populations and incomes are expected to demand 70 per cent more food production globally, says the FAO, and up to 100 per cent more in developing countries, compared to 2009 levels.

In a grim irony, the distribution of land and water resources doesn't favour those countries that need to produce more food in the future: the average availability of cultivated land per capita in low-income countries is less than half that of high-income countries, and the suitability of cultivated land for crops is generally lower.

To top things off, some countries with a rapidly growing demand for food are also those that face high levels of land or water scarcity.

Yes, the world's cultivated land area has grown by 12 per cent over the last 50 years, mostly due to the global irrigated area, which has doubled over the same period. And overall agricultural production has increased by a factor of 2.5 to three during the same time, mainly due to significant increases in major crop yields.

But the same achievements in agricultural production have also meant some regions have seen the degradation of land and water resources, and the deterioration of related ecosystem goods and services like soil health, water storage and supply, biodiversity, and social and cultural services.

Those who are hardest hit are often those who have the least resilience to contend with it — people making their living from small agricultural plots, often in areas that are seeing the greatest climatic changes. Sub-Saharan Africa pops to mind, but don't be too smug in thinking the impacts will all be "over there."

Our provincial government's 2006 report examining how much of B.C.'s food supply can be generated in our own province puts it at only one-third when using Canada's food guide as the yardstick. When it comes to fresh fruits and veggies, about 46 per cent had to be imported at the time of the report, much of that coming from California, which is currently facing its worst drought in decades.

According to the FAO report, agriculture now uses 11 per cent of the world's land surface for crop production. It also uses a phenomenal 70 per cent of all the water taken from aquifers, streams and lakes. And that's before the projected 40 per cent increase in world population. Do the math: food production as usual is out of the question.

By the provincial government report, to produce a healthy diet for B.C.'s projected population in 2025, farmers will need 2.78 million hectares in production, of which 281,000 hectares will need access to irrigation. Given existing production technology, farmland with access to irrigation will need to increase by 92,000 hectares or 49 per cent over 2005 levels. And most land with irrigation access is typically near urban centres.

All of these issues are resolvable through the right policies — policies that may not be politically expedient today but do the right thing for tomorrow. Is there a better argument for maintaining every last hectare in the Agricultural Land Reserve — or, better, expanding it? Or keeping our coastal waters oil tanker-free?

What's also exacerbating the problem worldwide, says the FAO, is that land and water institutions haven't kept pace with the growing intensity of agricultural development and the increasing interdependence on, and competition over land and water resources. Much more adaptability and collaboration is needed.

As for climate change, as hugely disruptive as it will continue to be, it's only one factor in the deterioration of land and water resources for food production.

"A series of land and water systems now face the risk of progressive breakdown of their productive capacity under a combination of excessive demographic pressure and unsustainable agricultural practices," states the FAO report.

"These systems at risk warrant priority attention for remedial action simply because there are no substitutes."

No substitutes for good arable land, good clean water — and good policies for managing them.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist and an optimist who worries about our future food supply.

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