World Grain Production Down in 2010, But Recovering

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

World grain production fell in 2010, exacerbating a global food situation already plagued by rising prices, according to new research published by the Worldwatch Institute for its Vital Signs Online publication. Despite record rice and maize yields around the world, global wheat production dropped substantially enough to bring total grain output to just below 2008 levels.

Maize, wheat, and rice provide nearly two-thirds of the global human diet and serve as critical inputs for both animal feed and industrial products. The significance of these crops guarantees that a decline in production will produce ripple effects throughout the global economy, particularly as increased food prices continue to take a toll on the world’s neediest populations. Overall, rice and wheat production have tripled since the 1960s, and maize production has quadrupled, despite global acreage of these crops increasing by only 35 percent.

Production increased worldwide, but there was greater reliance on irrigation, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides—all of which take resources, can be costly, and may cause substantial environmental degradation. As farmers have begun to witness these impacts, many have been forced to abandon their fields because of infertile soil.

Nevertheless, preliminary data for 2011 indicate that grain production is recovering from the 2010 slump. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently forecast that cereal output in 2011–12 will be 3 percent higher than in 2010–11.

Grain remains the foundation of the world’s diet, and the failure of harvests in recent years to keep pace with growth in meat consumption and population is worrisome. It’s important that we identify and implement more inventive and sustainable strategies in grain production. Reducing the proportion of grain harvests lost to weather disasters and waste or diverted for corn ethanol production and animal feed is among such strategies. It’s also important that we prioritize grain availability for those who need it most.

Recent growth in agricultural production has been uneven. In many regions, climate change has brought irregular weather patterns such as rising temperatures, violent storms, and flash flooding. In Russia, where severe drought has plagued large farming regions, overall wheat yields plunged 40 percent in 2010, compared to a decline of only 5 percent worldwide. Subsequently, Russia—the fourth largest wheat exporter in 2009—banned all wheat exports, severely disrupting world grain markets. Poor weather took its toll elsewhere as well: El Niño in the west Pacific, for example, brought rice production down significantly in the Philippines, already the world’s largest food importer.

Rising demand for ethanol fuel, which in the United States is produced almost exclusively from corn feedstock, is having an impact on grain prices as well. According to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO), about 20 percent of the increase in maize prices between 2007 and 2008 was due to domestic ethanol demand. Demand for grains is also rising in countries such as China and India, where growing middle classes are adopting more diverse diets.

Farming has always been an uncertain business that depends in large part on the weather, and it could be entering an even more difficult phase. As the global climate changes, the warmer, less stable atmospheric conditions could be detrimental for food production. In an already fragile economy, continued volatile prices and unpredictable weather-induced shortages are sure to negatively affect both producers and consumers in developing countries.

Further highlights from the research:

  • Between 1960 and 2010, annual global grain production increased from 643 million tons to 2.2 billion tons.
  • U.S. maize (corn) production was down 5 percent in 2010 due to drought in the east and excessive rain in the west. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of maize, accounting for 56 percent of global exports from 2006 to 2010.
  • According to the FAO’s Cereal Price Index (CPI), which uses 2002–04 prices for wheat, rice and maize as its baseline (100), food prices increased to an index level of 185 in August 2010 and set a record at 265 in April 2011.
  • Forty percent of the global increase in maize prices in 2000–07 was due to worldwide demand for ethanol, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. Additional reasons for the jump in food prices include the weakening of the U.S. dollar, speculation on grain prices, and possible climate change impacts.
  • Stanford University researchers who created a model to determine how changing weather patterns affect crop yields found a 2.9 percent increase in global rice production as a result of greater precipitation, but losses of 3.8 percent for wheat and 2.5 percent for maize.

Global Meat Production and Consumption Continue to Rise

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

Global meat production and consumption have increased rapidly in recent decades, with harmful effects on the environment and public health as well as on the economy, according to research done by Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project for Vital Signs Online. Worldwide meat production has tripled over the last four decades and increased 20 percent in just the last 10 years. Meanwhile, industrial countries are consuming growing amounts of meat, nearly double the quantity in developing countries.

Large-scale meat production also has serious implications for the world’s climate. Animal waste releases methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouse gases that are 25 and 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, respectively.

Dirty, crowded conditions on factory farms can propagate sickness and disease among the animals, including swine influenza (H1N1), avian influenza (H5N1), foot-and-mouth disease, and mad-cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). These diseases not only translate into enormous economic losses each year—the United Kingdom alone spent 18 to 25 billion dollars in a three-year period to combat foot-and-mouth disease—but they also lead to human infections.

Mass quantities of antibiotics are used on livestock to reduce the impact of disease, contributing to antibiotic resistance in animals and humans alike. Worldwide, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in 2009 were used on livestock and poultry, compared to only 20 percent used for human illnesses. Antibiotics that are present in animal waste leach into the environment and contaminate water and food crops, posing a serious threat to public health.

The amount of meat in people’s diets has an impact on human health as well. Eaten in moderation, meat is a good source of protein and of important vitamins and nutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamins B3, B6, and B12. But a diet high in red and processed meats can lead to a host of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Eating organic, pasture-raised livestock can alleviate chronic health problems and improve the environment. Grass-fed beef contains less fat and more nutrients than its factory-farmed counterpart and reduces the risk of disease and exposure to toxic chemicals. Well-managed pasture systems can improve carbon sequestration, reducing the impact of livestock on the planet. And the use of fewer energy-intensive inputs conserves soil, reduces pollution and erosion, and preserves biodiversity.

Further Highlights from the Research:

  • Pork is the most widely consumed meat in the world, followed by poultry, beef, and mutton.
  • Poultry production is the fastest growing meat sector, increasing 4.7 percent in 2010 to 98 million tons.
  • Worldwide, per capita meat consumption increased from 41.3 kilograms in 2009 to 41.9 kilograms in 2010. People In the developing world eat 32 kilograms of meat a year on average, compared to 80 kilograms per person in the industrial world.
  • Of the 880 million rural poor people living on less than $1 per day, 70 percent are partially or completely dependent on livestock for their livelihoods and food security.
  • Demand for livestock products will nearly double in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, from 200 kilocalories per person per day in 2000 to some 400 kilocalories in 2050.
  • Raising livestock accounts for roughly 23 percent of all global water use in agriculture, equivalent to 1.15 liters of water per person per day.
  • Livestock account for an estimated 18 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, producing 40 percent of the world’s methane and 65 percent of the world’s nitrous oxide.
  • Seventy-five percent of the antibiotics used on livestock are not absorbed by the animals and are excreted in waste, posing a serious risk to public health.
  • An estimated 11 percent of deaths in men and 16 percent of deaths in women could be prevented if people decreased their red meat consumption to the level of the group that ate the least.
  • Eating organic, pasture-raised animals can be healthier and environmentally beneficial compared to industrial feedlot systems.

Fishing for Sustainable Practices to Conserve Fisheries

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

Global fish production has reached an all-time high, according to Nourishing the Planet’s latest research for the Worldwatch Institute’s Vital Signs Online publication. Aquaculture, or fish farming—once a minor contributor to total fish harvest—increased 50-fold between the 1950s and 2008 and now contributes nearly half of all fish produced worldwide.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization an estimated 53 percent of fisheries are considered fully exploited—harvested to their maximum sustainable levels—with no room for expansion in production. Population growth and a higher demand for dietary protein are putting increasing pressure on depleted stocks and threatened ecosystems.

Increased farming of large predators, such as salmon and tuna, has led to overfishing of prey fish—including anchoveta and herring, which are commonly used as fishmeal. It generally takes at least three kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of salmon. The shrinking of the numbers of prey species threatens the entire food chain, putting further stress on large predator stocks.

Depleting fisheries also negatively affect the economies of developing countries, home to the nearly 60 percent of the world’s fishers that are classified as small-scale commercial or subsistence fishers. In Africa, an estimated 100 million people depend on fish from inland sources, such as lakes and rivers, for income as well as protein and much-needed micronutrients like vitamin A, calcium, iron, and zinc. But coastal fisheries across West Africa have declined by up to 50 percent in the last 30 years due to significant pressure from large industrial fleets.

Fisheries also provide important ecosystem services, such as storing and recycling nutrients and absorbing pollutants. We need to make ecological restoration as much a goal as meeting the growing global demand for seafood. And we must move away from mainstream approaches that focus narrowly on short-term profit and boosting production to more sustainable strategies that help meet demand and support fishing communities.

Around the world, fisheries co-managed by local authorities and fishers themselves are emerging as a promising solution to replenishing depleting fish stocks.

In 2007, a group of Gambian women oyster harvesters formed the TRY Women’s Oyster Harvesting Association. They collectively agreed to close one tributary in their oyster territories for an entire year and to shorten their harvest season by two months. These practices may seem difficult in the short run, but they pay off over time, securing incomes and nutrition in their communities.

Focusing on fisheries can help boost incomes and strengthen food security, while protecting the ecosystems on which millions of people worldwide depend.

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“Greening” Fisheries Could Calm Troubled Waters

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

Fishing is a critical means of providing food, livelihood, trade, and economic growth in many developing countries—as well as the United States. In many small island developing nations and coastal countries – such as Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, and Ghana – fish provide at least 50 percent of the population’s total animal protein intake. And approximately 43.5 million people’s year-round incomes depend on fish production while another 4 million’s depend on seasonal jobs as fishers and fish product workers.

Yet, despite the important role of fisheries in maintaining economic and social well-being, “fisheries around the world are being plundered or exploited at unsustainable rates,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Speaking about the preview release of the UNEP’s Green Economy Report: A Preview, Mr. Steiner argued that the current fishing industry “is a failure of management of what will prove to be monumental proportions unless addressed.”

The Green Economy Initiative report, scheduled for release later this year, argues that investment in “greening” the economy across a range of sectors – including agriculture, fisheries, and water – can drive global economic recovery and lead to future prosperity, job creation, and improved environmental conservation.

Currently, some 52 percent of the world’s marine fisheries are fully exploited and producing at— or close to— their maximum limits. Another 28 percent of the world’s marine fisheries are categorized as overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion—a producing less than their maximum potential. And when fisheries collapse, there is more than just the loss of fish life to worry about: livelihoods, communities, and entire economies are ruined.

Though the current outlook on fisheries may be troubling, researchers say that all is not lost. According to the Green Economy Initiative’s report, an $8 billion annual investment in rebuilding and “greening” the world’s fisheries could have a positive, and lasting, impact on the fishing industry worldwide. Researchers say this investment has the potential to both increase fish catches and generate $1.7 trillion in long-term economic returns over the next four decades.

Some possible methods for “greening” fisheries highlighted in the report include providing job training in alternative jobs industries; reducing the size of fishing fleets to limit excess harvesting capacity; and providing additional funding for fishery management to expand marine protected areas.

To read more about fisheries and the impact of the fishing sector, see: Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans, Farming Fish for the Future, and Vital Signs Online: Global Fish Production Continues to Rise.

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