Food vs Forests: Challenges for Sri LankaView(s):
Forests are indiscriminately destroyed; land is cleared in the name of development but ostensibly for other purposes; Sri Lanka’s food import bill is rising.
According to official statistics, the country’s forest cover fell to 29.7 per cent of total land area in 2010 from 36.4 per cent in 1990.
The debate between clearing land for agriculture and food security needs and in the process reducing valuable forest cover is a perennial one, now gaining greater proportions with the global population expected to rise by 35 per cent to 9 billion in 2050 from 7 billion in 2012. Sri Lanka’s own population is seen rising to 23 million in 2030. This means more mouths to feed and as the usual practice goes, more land to clear for food production.
However new studies are showing that the future lies in retaining the forests and curbing land clearance. So how does the world increase food production? By increasing yields in the same land space; better irrigation and water use techniques; higher yielding crops; and more organic agriculture with latest techniques that increase yields with faster growth, etc.
While reforestation seems to be the answer to climate change and clearing land for more food-based production, a 2012 study by the US-based MIT reveals that ‘a growing population and rapid development will put a strain on land used to grow food over the next century. But if reforestation is used to avoid climate change it will create further strain.”
Conscious of these concerns, a group of researchers as reported in the May 2014 issue of the respected National Geographic magazine, has come up with a 5-step plan to feed the world (and save Planet Earth). “When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet,” the report said.
The first step, the team said is to “Freeze Agriculture’s Footprint” saying destroying forests rarely benefit the 850 million people in the world who are still hungry. Most of the land cleared for agriculture in the tropics does not contribute much to the world’s food security but is instead used to produce cattle, soybeans for livestock, timber, and palm oil.
Step two is to “Grow More on Farms We’ve Got” which the team, led by Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, said could be done by using high-tech, precision farming systems, as well as approaches borrowed from organic farming which would boost yields in these places several times over. It said increasing yields on underperforming farms could significantly boost the world’s food supply.
The third proposal is to use resources more efficiently, suggesting that organic farming could reduce the use of water and chemicals—by “incorporating cover crops, mulches, and compost to improve soil quality, conserve water, and build up nutrients”.
“Many farmers have also gotten smarter about water, replacing inefficient irrigation systems with more precise methods, like subsurface drip irrigation. Advances in both conventional and organic farming can give us more ‘crop per drop’ from our water and nutrients,” Foley said.
Shifting diets was the fourth step with the team stating that only 55 per cent of the world’s crop calories feed people directly; the rest are fed to livestock (about 36 per cent) or turned into bio-fuels and industrial products (roughly 9 per cent). “Though many of us consume meat, dairy, and eggs from animals raised on feedlots, only a fraction of the calories in feed given to livestock make their way into the meat and milk that we consume. Curtailing the use of food crops for biofuels could also go a long way toward enhancing food availability,” the study found.
The team recommended reducing waste as the fifth step, saying that an estimated 25 per cent of the world’s food calories and up to 50 per cent of total food weight are lost or wasted before they can be consumed. “In rich countries most of that waste occurs in homes, restaurants, or supermarkets. In poor countries food is often lost between the farmer and the market, due to unreliable storage and transportation,” it said.
Foley said taken together, these five steps could more than double the world’s food supplies and dramatically cut the environmental impact of agriculture worldwide. “We need to find a balance between producing more food and sustaining the planet for future generations,” he said in the report.
What does this mean to Sri Lanka whose population will rise coupled with an increasing ageing population growing where food habits are most likely to change with these demographic patterns?
In a recent report, Buddhi Marambe, an Agriculture Professor at the University of Peradeniya said the issues relating to food and nutrition facing Sri Lanka are poverty, climate change, decreasing arable agricultural land, increasing population pressure, weak trends in technology generation in agriculture – lack of quality seeds, heavy post-harvest losses, global economic recession, increasing food prices and poor accessibility of nutritious food.
On climate change, he said the issues were slow and continuous rise of ambient temperature, frequent occurrence of extreme weather events, droughts and floods, high intensity rains/landslides, tornado type winds, intense lightning strikes and sea level rise. The climate change concerns are in fact at the country’s doorstep with flash floods, erratic weather, changing temperatures in the capital and changing weather patterns.
Sri Lanka needs to vigorously get into the debate on forests versus food and chart its own course to balance the equation between growing more food and preserving the forest cover.
An international conference on Agriculture and Forestry being held in Colombo next month, bringing together some of the top researchers in the world, would be an ideal forum to start a serious discussion on these issues.