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This global map of manure could help save farming as we know it

By Rachel CrowellMay. 7, 2019 , 12:30 PM

To grow the world’s wheat, corn, and beans, farmers need phosphorus—an essential nutrient that comes from bird and bat droppings and rock deposits. But the global supply of easily mineable phosphorus is dwindling; to stave off the coming drought, scientists are exploring an alternative: recycling animal manure for its phosphorus content. Now, they’ve come up with the world’s first map of this underappreciated resource, which shows that most manure is exactly where farmers need it—in their own backyards.

To make their map (above), researchers used data on livestock density and calculated the annual amount of phosphorus excreted by cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats globally—as much as a whopping 130,000 kilograms per square kilometer, they report in an upcoming issue of Earth’s Future. (Various estimates put total global production between 15 million to 20 million metric tons per year.) The researchers found “hot spots,” areas in which manure-based phosphorus is a widely available, but underused, on every continent except Antarctica. Unsurprisingly, many of those hot spots are near farming communities and river deltas where agricultural runoff abounds.

But reusing old phosphorus is easier said than done. To process pig and cow poo, farmers must break it down with bacteria or use special equipment to crystallize its struvite—the same phosphate mineral that makes up some kidney and bladder stones. These processes are already used by many commercial farms, which together help recycle about half the global supply of manure. But they are costly for small family farms, which supply most food in parts of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

The researchers hope their map will encourage countries, including India, Brazil, China, and the United States (which together use 66% of the world’s phosphorus fertilizer), to support phosphorus recycling. Not only would more recycling reduce imports, but it would also help the environment by eliminating manure—and its phosphorus—from the water supply. It could also put a few more years on our phosphorus clock.



Future 50’ food items identified in new report

Fifty food items have been identified as ‘future food’ in a report released by German brand Knorr, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Adam Drewnowski, director of The Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington on February 20, 2019.

“Seventy-five per cent of the global food supply comes from only 12 plant and five animal species. Just three (rice, maize and wheat) make up nearly 60 per cent of calories from plants in the entire human diet”, the report states.

Other important products among the 12 include palm, fruit, oil, potatoes, soybeans, sugar beets, sugar cane, and tomatoes.

The diversity on the plate and on farm lands globally has reduced as only these 12 crops are focused on in terms of cultivation. The cost of this has reflected on both, human health and environment. Since 1900, a staggering 75 per cent of the genetic plant diversity in agriculture has been lost, says the report.

Another recent research done by Adam R Martin, assistant professor, Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences and The Centre for Critical Development Studies, University of Toronto, Scarborough, Canada, states that ‘large industrial-sized farms in Asia, Europe, North and South America looks very similar’. The author says that this is because all are focusing on commercial crops and soybeans, wheat, rice and corn are crops which cover over 50 per cent of the world’s agricultural lands.

For the research, they used data from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) to look at which crops were grown where on large-scale industrial farmlands from 1961 to 2014. The study also found that regionally, the varieties are increasing but on a global scale, they have dipped after 1990.

These shifts have given rise to malnutrition. Children under five face multiple burdens: 150.8 million are stunted, 50.5 million are wasted and 38.3 million are overweight, states the 2018 global nutritional report.

Food sovereignty under stake

With current reduction in crop diversity, food sovereignty has become a big issue along with food security. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

In Thailand, for example, the 16,000 varieties once cultivated, have dropped to just 37 varieties. In the past century, the United States has lost 80 per cent of its cabbage, pea and tomato varieties.

In India, over 80 to 100 different kinds of seasonal, wild, cultivated and uncultivated foods form a part of the regular diet, especially among tribal and Dalit communities. These continue to be strongly embedded in the local ecological and cultural context. Nutritional analyses of these diets shows that the foods can meet and counter malnutrition including micro-nutrient malnutrition such as Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). The has been stated in the report “Exploring the Potential of Diversified Traditional Food Systems to Contribute to a Healthy Diet” authored by members of the Food Sovereignty Alliance (FSA), India, along with the Catholic Health Association of India (CHAI).

The Future 50 foods have been recommended to overcome health issues by following sustainable farming methods. The criteria for choosing the 50 foods has been based on their high nutritional value, relative environmental impact, flavour, accessibility, acceptability and affordability.

The 50 have been divided into various category like algae, beans and pulses, cereals and grains, fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, mushrooms, nuts and seeds, root vegetables, sprouts and tubers.


Food production needs to be more eco-friendly

If the planet has to be saved from catastrophic climate change, by 2040, the world’s food production systems should absorb more carbon than they emit; in other words, act as a carbon sink, a global report has found.

The EAT- Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health, comprising a team of over 37 experts from 16 countries, including India, has cautioned that it would be impossible to contain global warming unless food production systems, of which agriculture is a vital component, are not overhauled.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 195 nations agreed to keep average global warming to well below two degree Celsius compared to the global temperatures in the pre-industrial era. There is already a rise of one degree in global temperatures since 1900.

“In this geological epoch, the Anthropocene, pace and scale of local environmental effects have grown exponentially since the mid-1950s. Humans have become dominating drivers of change, and food production is the largest source of environmental degradation and has the greatest effect on the earth system,” the report, published in the Lancet Journal on Thursday, found.

Food production changes land-use, causes climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater depletion and involves the use of chemical fertilizers.

The commission, which focused on two endpoints of the global food system — final consumption (healthy diets) and sustainable food production — also offered solutions to stave off negative impact. “Sustainable food production for about 10 billion people should use no additional land, safeguard existing biodiversity, reduce consumptive water use and manage water responsibly, substantially reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, produce zero carbon dioxide emissions, and cause no further increase in methane and nitrous oxide emissions,” the report said.

The commission attempted to estimate a maximum allowable carbon budget from food production. For instance, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of methane and nitrous oxide will have to remain between 4.7 to 5.4 gigatonne in 2050. In 2010, these emissions were already estimated to be about 5.2 gigatonnes. Phosphorus use must be reduced from current usage of 17.9 teragram to between 6-16 teragram. Biodiversity loss must be decelerated from 100 to between 1 to 80 extinctions per million species annually, no further conversion of land for agriculture should be allowed. Although total emissions from food production have been stable since 1990, the total estimate of all GHG emissions from food production is 8·5–13·7 gigatones of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

The report terms these targets “planetary boundaries” (global biophysical limits that humanity should operate within to ensure a stable environment) within which agricultural production must remain to prevent harmful impact of climate change like global warming.

Apart from halving the current rate of food losses and wastage, the commission also recommended efficiency in agricultural land use with a focus on closing yield gaps by at least 75% (yield gap is defined as the difference between potential yield and actual farm yield under the same environment); balancing nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer application between regions; improved water management; and saving biodiversity in agricultural plots.

“Agriculture is in fact an opportunity to mitigate as well as adapt to climate change. Policy makers have to realise that making these changes in the farming system is not optional any more. I hope the Lancet Commission reaches out to policy makers,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, researcher and activist, Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture.

Examples set

In India, two states have taken the lead on demonstrating how natural farming can be water efficient, help conserve biodiversity and eliminate phosphorus and nitrogenous fertilisers.

In 2003, Sikkim stopped imports of chemical fertilizers, and since then, the cultivatable land there is used for organic or natural farming. Sikkim won the Future Policy Award 2018 of the Food and Agricultural Organisation, beating 51 nominated policies from 25 countries, for its sustainable farming practices.

Andhra Pradesh government last year launched a policy to transition 6 million farms and farmers cultivating 8 million hectares of land from conventional synthetic chemical agriculture to Zero-Budget Natural Farming by 2024.