Owen Hembry: Radical change vital for global food crops

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How the world grows its food needs to change radically to cope with increasing population and climate change, while at the same time avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse, says the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development.

The inter-governmental body which prepared it includes as its sponsors the World Bank and UN agencies Unesco and the World Health Organization. The report was published last week after being considered by 64 Governments in Johannesburg.

Charged with examining issues of hunger, poverty, environment and equity, the report's 400 experts concluded the demand for food would double within the next 25 to 50 years.

But IAASTD director Robert Watson says agriculture can no longer be thought of simply as production.

"We need to increase productivity but we need to do it at the same time as making sure that we're environmentally sound and that we're positioned to make more resilient the agricultural sector to the projected changes in climate ... in water, temperature, and extreme weather events."

The planet has lost some environmental sustainability, with adverse effect on soils, water and biodiversity in some parts of the world, he says.

"Our agricultural systems contribute to human-induced climate change, and in turn human-induced climate change threatens agricultural productivity."

Food production has grown faster than population during the past 50 years, and the price of many commodities is still comparable to the early 1990s in real terms, he says.

However, more than 800 million people worldwide go to bed hungry each night.

"There have been some successes, but if you look from one region to another it's very uneven ... This is in large part due to institutional and policy environments," Watson says.

The report says the willingness of many people to combine production, social and environmental goals is marred by contentious political and economic stances.

IAASTD co-chairman Hans Herren says many OECD member countries are deeply opposed to any change in trade regimes or subsidy systems.

"Without reforms here many poorer countries will have a very hard time," he says.

The number of malnourished people could increase in the coming decades as the climate changes and the global population expands from 6.6 billion to 9 billion by 2050.

Any warming in temperature, especially coupled with a change in precipitation, is likely to reduce productivity throughout the tropical and subtropical regions, he says.

"The other side of the coin is agriculture does contribute, if you include deforestation, 30 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. So the agriculture-climate issue is fully coupled."

The authors conclude there is little time to lose in changing course, with the present trend heading toward an exhaustion of resources.

Watson says knowledge, science and technology are central to meeting the challenges of alleviating poverty and hunger and to improving livelihoods.

"The basic sciences we've absolutely got to increase, the social sciences, political and legal knowledge - and fundamentally we have to have innovation at the rural level and for consumers," he says.

"Basically the world and our future is in our hands collectively."

It is easy to take food for granted when it is plentiful.

People have died this month in protests against rising food prices in Haiti, while unrest related to food and fuel costs has affected Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal.

The unrest brings to mind the old saying that any society is only three square meals away from a revolution.

Fears of hunger and starvation emerged in the 1960s before a "green revolution" boosted productivity with the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and hybrids. It is time once again for innovative, but sustainable thinking.

BLAME THE WEATHER

Horticulture New Zealand says the latest food-price index figures back up feelings among growers that the weather during spring and summer put pressure on the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables.

According to Statistics New Zealand, food prices for the year to March were up 6 per cent, with grocery food up 9 per cent, meat, poultry and fish up 2.7 per cent and fruit and vegetables up 2.9 per cent.

An increase in the price of fresh tomatoes of about $2.70 a kilo in February reflected the difficulty in maintaining yields from plants stressed by a hot, dry summer, Horticulture New Zealand says.

Its chief executive, Peter Silcock, says it is simply supply and demand.

"The difficulty for growers is that this does not mean they made more money for their product, especially as their costs increase for irrigation, cold storage and new plants."

Nothing contributes more to increased costs than energy, he says.

"The rise in the price of petrol by 20 per cent in the past year is nothing less than horrendous, and these are costs growers cannot pass on."

Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton says the food price index has risen by 28 per cent since 1999, compared to inflation of 24.7 per cent and a rise in the average wage of 33.7 per cent.

"In other words, New Zealand households can buy more at the checkout now than they could then."

Between 2001 and 2006, fruit and vegetables became cheaper Meat, poultry and fish prices peaked in 2002 and then remained at lower prices until 2006, he says. Milk, cheese and egg prices returned to a level in October they had been at five years earlier.

"The consumer was the winner throughout this period, but it was unsustainable for producers," he says.

RECYCLING BENEFITS

Improving waste recycling in business can be as simple as giving employees the right bins, says Fonterra national eco-efficiency manager Spring Humphreys.

Humphreys was at last week's New Zealand Packaging Accord seminar to talk about the dairy co-operative's eco-efficiency programme.

Fonterra set itself targets to reduce the waste it sends to landfills by 75 per cent by the end of 2007 and 90 per cent by the end of 2009.

The company hit 76.5 per cent by June last year and is on target for 2009, Humphreys says.

Last year Fonterra won a Packaging Council achievement award.

Its programme was launched in 2003 with the aim of minimising the amount of waste generated and sent to landfill, and runs at 150 sites including offices and manufacturing operations.

Some actions can be simple.

"If you only have a rubbish bin you don't have any opportunity to separate [waste]," Humphreys says.

So far this financial year, the recovery and recycling of material via two routes - a mill for cardboard and the export of plastic for recycling - totalled more than 3353 tonnes of cardboard, plastic and paper.

Humphreys says an industry template for calculating the environmental impact of this recycling shows a saving of 43,592 trees, 8383 barrels of oil, more than 13 million kilowatts of electricity, 1373 tonnes of carbon dioxide and 105 million litres of water.

A change in how cheese bags are packaged has increased the amount that can be stacked on a pallet from 5000 to 7500 bags.

Previously the cheese bags were first packed inside other bags and then put into cardboard boxes - now they are packed only in a vacuum sealed bag.

The change cut transport needs by 600 pallets a year. "It enabled our staff to spend more time on the job rather than having to deal with wastage."

Another initiative saw a bottle used for milk samples, which previously had a label attached and was sent to landfill, replaced with a different specification of plastic. The replacement can be shredded for recycling and incorporates a reusable chip for storing information.

The change led to a saving in plastic waste of more than 100 tonnes a year, plus the labels and time.

Meanwhile, a systems change cut milk-docket printing by 154 reams of paper a week, said Humphreys.

"The beauty about this is it's actually quite simple. All it needs is a mindset change. The key point is we're getting more outlets to be able to process some of what used to be classed as waste but is actually reusable."

- NZ Herald

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