Being in debt to nature is dangerous, because when water reserves are depleted and there is neither clean air nor arable land left, we will not have a second planet to provide us with these resources. But that's the scenario we are headed for right now.
On August 1, 2018, an annual event known as the “Ecological Debt Day” took place. That day marks the date when more resources have already been consumed than the planet can generate in a year. This 2018 is the earliest date on which it has been indicated.
One of the aspects that exerts the most pressure on the limitations of the planet is our food system. This represents the way in which humanity grows, produces, transports and consumes food. The way these activities are carried out today are conducive to climate change and deforestation. Freshwater reserves and biodiversity are diminishing.
We must transform today's food systems to produce more nutritious food with less environmental impact. To this end, a series of initiatives are already underway throughout the world. Here we present five scientific proposals, related to raising livestock, growing food and recycling wastewater.
All of them could help us pay off this growing debt that we have with the planet.
Reduce animal emissions: After the energy and transport sectors, the food system constitutes one of the main emitters of greenhouse gases. It is responsible for around a quarter of total emissions.
Raising livestock to produce meat and dairy accounts for 14.5%, due to the methane gas that the animals expel.
A research promoted by the International Institute for Agricultural Research is working in Brazil and Uruguay to identify cows that produce lower methane emissions.
Once identified, they can be raised and reproduced naturally. This measure is expected to reduce emissions associated with livestock by between 5 and 20%.
Recover forgotten foods: 75% of the food produced in the world comes from only twelve types of crops and five animal species. Some 940 species of cultivated plants are estimated to be in danger of extinction.
There are many forgotten foods that are resistant to climate change, loaded with nutrients and could be produced in a sustainable way. The African eggplant is red or orange in color and has leaves that are extremely rich in calcium, iron and beta-carotene (which the body transforms into vitamin A).
It makes sense to study these abandoned nutritional treasures with the mission of supplying the world's demand for food. Scientists from the African Orphan Crops Consortium, organized by the World Agroforestry Center, use hybridization techniques with underutilized crops to improve their resilience and nutritional quality.
Precision farming: Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are essential nutrients for the growth of food crops. The abuse of these fertilizers begins to exceed the maximum amount of chemical substances that nature can assimilate.
A study carried out by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security in a wheat growing area located in Mexico has shown that a more precise application of nitrogen significantly reduces emissions and discharges associated with its use. All this without affecting the crops.
Some researchers study and promote responsible practices to help farmers use fertilizers more efficiently. To do this, they analyze the amount of nitrogen present in the soil and the climate. They have tested portable sensors capable of calculating the nitrogen required by plants, which can tell farmers the optimal amount of fertilizer to use.
In 2017 and 2018, Mexican farmers in the Yaqui Valley already used devices with similar sensors attached to drones to obtain recommendations on the fertilizer needs of more than 400 hectares of wheat crops.
Control deforestation from the sky: It is estimated that agriculture was, between 2000 and 2010, responsible for 80% of global deforestation.
The production of palm oil, which is used in countless products, from bread to ice cream, is one of the main causes of deforestation. Farmers in producing countries are constantly destroying forests to plant oil palms.
The Center for International Forestry Research has developed a map that allows the control of unsustainable practices. It has a tool, known as the “Borneo Atlas”, which shows, through regularly updated satellite images, the impact of the island's 467 palm oil extracting plantations on nearby forest areas. Also any signs of expansion of existing plantations.
The objective is that this greater transparency promotes the elimination of unsustainable practices in supply chains by companies.
Recycle wastewater: About 84% of the world's fresh water is used for agriculture. It is expected that by 2030 the agricultural demand for water will exceed the amount of water available, leaving the demand for domestic use completely unsupplied.
More than half of the world's fresh water ends up as unusable waste. For this reason, the International Institute for Water Management has studied up to 24 proposals for the reuse of wastewater so that it is profitable.
In Bangladesh, for example, wastewater from a hospital complex, which would normally have ended up in a nearby river, has been reused in the production of protein-rich food for fish farming.
The benefits of the sale of these fish quickly exceeded the costs of the process, so that the proposal brought advantages both economically and in terms of food safety for the area.
Pay off our debt
Nature is relentless, like the collector of the tailcoat. But as these projects reflect, and many others managed by scientists around the world, humanity is not lost. We still have many options to explore to achieve a more sustainable food system and pay off our debt to the planet.
By Elwyn Grainger-Jones
Executive Director, CGIAR System Organization, CGIAR System Organization