Food for thought – sharing information on food production

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Article Published 13 Dec 2011 Last modified 11 May 2021
4 min read
Global food, energy and water systems appear to be more vulnerable and fragile than was thought a few years ago, due to increased demand for food, and a decreased and unstable supply, according to an EEA analysis. But we can make our food systems more resilient if we rethink what we eat and how we produce it.

Demand for food, feed and fibres could grow by 70 % by 2050, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Arable land per person declined globally from 0.43 ha in 1962 to 0.26 ha in 1998, and the FAO expects this to fall further by 1.5 % per year until 2030 if there are no major policy changes. Over-exploitation, degradation and loss of soils are key concerns, as is the reduced genetic variety of our crops.

Global water demand is projected to increase by 40 % in only 20 years’ time, with up to 50 % of the world living in areas with high water stress by 2030 - complicating food production further.

However, we can adapt to some of these challenges. Approximately 90 % of the food we eat comes from 14 animal species and four plant species – wheat, maize, rice and potato. Depending on such a narrow section of possible foods reduces our resilience to environmental challenges. However, if we better exploit the food potential of all 10,000 or so edible plant species, we can adapt to challenges such as climate change, poor quality soil, water shortage and pests.

For example, the 2004 tsunami inundated many Pacific islands with salt, halting the growth and cultivation of some rice species. Some islanders knew about salt-resistant rice species, among others, growing in the hills. Planting these seeds locally allowed new rice crops to be cultivated under the new salty conditions. This is an example of knowledge which could have a huge impact if shared globally, for example in some of the rice growing communities in South Asia where increased salt water intrusion is a serious threat from climate change.

It is not just indigenous knowledge that can be better exploited - there is a huge amount of scientific knowledge on the wild relatives of standard crops. Information on where they are found, how they grow and so on may be vitally important for meeting some of the environmental challenges this century.

So information is key to adapting, and a big part of this is becoming more resource efficient – in effect achieving more, in a sustainable way, from the land and other resources we already have. More than half the food produced globally is lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain. Eating less meat can also improve food security.

Information can also improve farmers’ resource efficiency. Take soil erosion for example. Deforestation and improper agricultural management have in combination led to large-scale soil degradation, primarily through soil erosion by surface water runoff. Areas with high water-erosion sensitivity are projected to increase by more than a third to some 27 million km2 in 2030, approximately 21% of the world land area, especially in China, India, Africa, the United States and South America.

So sharing information becomes increasingly important. Local information between individuals and communities is often shared when the need is obvious. But information sharing tends to decline at bigger scales. Long distances, different cultures, languages, technologies, formats and standards can all be barriers to information sharing. However, in the Information Age, these barriers are rapidly being overcome.

This week, representatives of national governments and others from around the world will come together at the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi from 12-15 December. Summit participants will share expertise and insights about sharing environmental information globally, to synergise and create new ideas.

The EEA is showcasing a new version of the Eye on Earth global public information service at the Summit. The information hosted on this service can come from a wide variety of sources – from citizens to communities, from institutions and formal networks.

With the huge store of environmental information as its foundation, the key visualisation tool used by the web service is currently online maps, which can be manipulated by users. Without the need for any advanced technical training, people can choose to add a huge variety of layers to the maps and upload their own observations and knowledge. The creators of Eye on Earth hope to add other data visualisation functions in the future. Maps and other data can also be saved and shared through Eye on Earth and social media.

Returning to the issue of food production, this service could in the future help break down the barriers between different agricultural communities in distant corners of the world. A community experiencing the negative effects of climate change and drought on their traditional food crops can rapidly access information on Eye on Earth. These farmers may find information shared by another community from another drought-stricken region across the world about how they adapted to increased drought, including the plant species they used and the methods they employed to stop erosion.

And the story doesn’t stop there. Together these communities can enter more information into Eye on Earth, and these success stories may be combined with other datasets to produce an ever-more comprehensive picture of our environment.

So the information sharing is an extremely powerful idea. It is self-reinforcing, and will become an ever-more practical way of doing things.  The most effective way of protecting our fragile environment and feeding a growing population is using the best possible knowledge, from as many sources as possible.



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