Is there enough land? A final reflection

Climate & Natural resources19 Jun 2009Dominic Glover

Many of the speakers and participants in Science Forum 2009 invoked the spectre of hunger in the context of population growth and climate change. The prognosis is of increasing pressure on scarce agricultural land and water as we try to produce enough food. It is said that we must exert ourselves to the utmost to make farming more productive over its existing surface area, since we cannot afford to expand the available agricultural land. And the need is urgent.

At the same time, the conference included a parallel workshop on the exciting possibilities for moving towards a ‘bio-based economy’, in which agriculture could be used to produce fuels, plastics and other ‘industrial’ products as well as food. The technological prospects are indeed attractive. But, if we need every square metre of land to produce food for hungry people, can we spare any for producing other products?

That question was discussed in the workshop on the bio-based economy. The participants in that workshop made some important observations. For instance, it was pointed out that improving the lives of poor people will require generating more energy as well as producing more food. Other participants reminded us that agriculture has long been used to produce non-food products, such as rubber, and also that growing cash crops of various kinds – including non-food crops – can be a good way for farmers to improve their livelihoods.

Several of the participants in the working group clearly doubted whether the supposed trade-off between food and non-food agriculture was real. Others proposed the pragmatic line that the aim should be to grow ‘multifunctional’ crops that could be used for food, fuel or other purposes at the same time. Nevertheless, at least one voice raised the concern that the spike in food prices during 2008 could certainly be traced to a boom in demand for biofuels. However, another responded that increased agricultural prices should encourage farmers to grow more, thus bringing food prices back down again.

A majority of those taking part in the bio-based economy workshop seemed to be rather relaxed about the supposed competition for land between food, fuel and other non-food crops. But some participants in the plenaries were clearly concerned about the issue. One person wanted to know why society was thinking about biofuels rather than conserving existing energy supplies, thus leaving farms to focus on producing food. (His comment made me wonder why we do not also hear much more about reducing the vast amounts of food that are wasted in industrialized food systems and in wealthy homes, rather than the need to grow more food.)

Clearly, there is an important debate to be had in this arena – with salient points to be made on both sides. Having observed some of the discussions, I am left wondering – How much do we really know about the importance or magnitude of the potential trade-offs between food and non-food crops? Is the perception of competition between them real or imagined? If it is real, can we afford to allow farming land to pass from growing food to producing biofuels? If it is imagined, shouldn’t we abandon the rhetoric of scarce land?

This is my final post from the Science Forum 2009. I would like to thank everyone who has visited this blog and especially those who have contributed their comments. I hope that you have found my messages interesting and useful.