The global agricultural population—defined as individuals dependent on agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry for their livelihood—accounted for over 37 percent of the world’s total population in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. This is a decrease of 12 percent from 1980, when the world’s agricultural and nonagricultural populations were roughly the same size. Although the agricultural population shrunk as a share of total population between 1980 and 2011, it grew numerically from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people during this period.
The world’s agricultural population grew from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people between 1980 and 2011. (Photo Credit: UNDP)
Between 1980 and 2011, the nonagricultural population grew by a staggering 94 percent, from 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion people—a rate approximately five times greater than that of agricultural population growth. In both cases growth was driven by the massive increase in the world’s total population, which more than doubled between 1961 and 2011, from 3.1 billion to 7 billion people.
It should be noted that the distinction between these population groups is not the same as the rural-urban divide. Rural populations are not exclusively agricultural, nor are urban populations exclusively nonagricultural. The rural population of Africa in 2011 was 622.8 million, for instance, while the agricultural population was 520.3 million.
Although the agricultural population grew worldwide between 1980 and 2011, growth was restricted to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. During this period, this population group declined in North, Central, and South America, in the Caribbean, and in Europe.
In 2011, Africa and Asia accounted for about 95 percent of the world’s agricultural population. In contrast, the agricultural population in the Americas accounted for a little less than 4 percent. Especially in the United States, this is the result of the development and use of new and innovative technologies as well as the increased use of farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems that require less manual labor.
On April 29, the European Union voted to largely ban the use of neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide, for two years beginning in December 2013. The ban had 15 member state supporters, including France, Germany, and Poland; eight opponents, including the United Kingdom; and four abstaining votes.
Neonicotinoids are a possible cause of the rapid decline in bee populations worldwide. (Photo credit: University of California)
The ban restricts the use of three pesticides—imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam—on flowering crops, which honeybees depend on for pollen and hive health. Environmental groups, beekeepers, scientists, and the public hailed the ban as a victory for the precautionary principle, which urges caution and careful scientific study in circumstances where the effects of a chemical or action on the environment are not sufficiently clear.
Neonicotinoids are thought to be particularly harmful for insects because the chemical is applied directly to a plant’s seed instead of its leaves or flowers. This makes the pesticide present in the plant’s pollen. Neonicotinoids are also persistent chemicals, meaning that they do not degrade within weeks or months, but rather remain in the nerve systems of insects, causing systemic and lasting damage.
In the United States, a coalition of beekeeping companies and environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency in March over its approval of neonicotinoids for domestic use. The groups cited a lack of scientific understanding of the pesticides’ effect on bees and other insects, and drew a possible connection between the chemicals and the ongoing collapse of honeybee hives across the country and worldwide.
This bee population crisis, known as colony collapse disorder, emerged in 2005, and scientists have not yet identified a clear cause. Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have both confirmed and denied a link between neonicotinoids and beehive collapse. Scientists agree that viruses, mites, drought, and loss of native habitat could also be contributing to the collapse.
Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city. Click here to read more from Wayne.
Stanford recently released a controversial study comparing organic and conventionally produced foods (Photo Credit: Susan Troccolo)
The international media had a field day headlining a Stanford university study dissing the nutritional benefits of organic food. I hope it’s not too late for me to ask a few questions that might steer the debate in a more useful direction.
I would like the media to explain why a study that was not based on either original research or professional expertise was considered so significant.
The paper, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is strictly a “meta-analysis,” combining some of the findings of some 200 other scientists’ publications over the years. It is the ninth such paper to come out in a decade, and the fourth to turn thumbs down on organic claims to significant superiority in the nutritional realm – not exactly trail-blazing stuff. Nor, considering the ability of writers to cherry pick various findings from different individual studies, does a meta-analysis inherently prove much more than ability to cherry pick. That’s why new hard research, rather than summaries of old research, is usually the stuff of news stories.
I would also like to ask why no-one checked the qualifications of this 12-person team, which was granted immediate credibility, despite the absence of a professional nutritionist, agrologist or bio-medical specialist. One is a librarian, a few are graduate students, several are medical doctors who specialize in such fields as infectious disease, bio-terrorism, diagnosis or HIV, one is a mathematician, one an administrator, one a research assistant.
The heavy-hitter on the team is Igram Olkin, an 88 year-old retired professor of statistics. Stanford University media releases cite his renown as a specialist in meta-analysis, without mentioning that his name is batted around as a paid witness on statistics for the tobacco industry. Given that the Stanford team’s use of statistics is subjected to withering criticism by organic advocate and academic Charles Benbrook, it’s odd no mainstream reporter checked to see if where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
It’s also a bit odd that no-one asked what an article on nutritional merits of organic foods was doing in a medical journal, given that doctors have minimal training, credentials or interest in this field – although maybe I’ve just answered my own question.
One of the first things I learned when researching for my first serious food book some 15 years ago was that the relation between organic and nutrition does not compute.
Nutritional levels vary according to a host of factors. One big one is the quality of soil long before anyone farmed it organically or conventionally (no history of volcanoes in New York means no rich volcanic ash in the soil, for example). Another factor that has little to do with organic or conventional is when the crop was picked (tomatoes get most of their vitamin C as they turn red, not when they’re hard and green, which is when they get picked by machines).
The list of crucial questions and variables keeps growing: how long was the produce in a truck or store, under what conditions was the food stored, how was the food prepared (some vitamins are destroyed by heat, some nutrients only become available when heated).
It’s quite likely that healthier and stronger plants grow on organically-managed soils, without any help from synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. But that’s no guarantee that the plants bulked up on more nutrients. Organic or not, plants work to meet their own survival needs, not ours, and the optimum level of vitamin B needed by a particular plant may or may not work best for humans. That’s why people choose particular plants if they’re looking for high doses of particular nutrients.
Put the whole mix together, and a study based on analysis of a conventional ruby red tomato, lightly cooked immediately after picking, will probably show more nutrients than an organic tomato picked green from an industrial organic farm a week ago, hauled across the continent on a truck, and left to sit at a salad bar, for example. These are the kinds of things that affect nutrient levels, and anyone who knows more about nutrition than editors of a conventional medical journal would hear alarms ringing in their ears if writers started making a big case about nutrient differences with or without organic.
This is why nutrition expert Marion Nestle started her blog item on the controversy by saying “sigh,” as in “have I not explained this a hundred times already?” Organic advocates rarely make a nutritional claim, she points out. So the Stanford article is knocking down a straw man.
With dairy and meat, new evidence suggests that a key issue is how animals are treated. Still- controversial studies suggest that grass-fed animals have more nutritious milk and meat than animals fed corn and soy – no matter whether organic or conventional. That’s only logical, given that most animals evolved to eat grass rather than corn or soy, which are good for bulking up fast, but not necessarily so good for complex nutrients.
Organic scores well, even in the Stanford study, in terms of pesticide residue, which is as important to personal health as nutrients. Almost no-one is suffering from scurvy, rickets or wasting in North America or Europe, where the Stanford study got a lot of media, but breast, prostate, colon and bladder cancers have affected almost every family. A strong case can be made that toxic residues from pesticides, brought into the body by food, are implicated in these cancers. So this isn’t exactly a minor selling point for organics.
On the question of toxins, however, I’m also intrigued that there are any—not 30 per cent less, but any—pesticide residues on organic. That can only mean that the toxins from conventional fields migrated by air, rain or water table to organic fields, and who knows where else.
Why didn’t that set off media alarm bells? It means that people who pay extra for organic are still getting toxic residues that rightfully belong to the people who produced and bought conventional food.
This is an issue worthy of a meta-analysis. Are organic consumers dupes, taking the toxic bullet for people who saved money thanks to pesticides. Is it fair that some farmers get to cut their production costs by spreading toxins throughout the environment?
Since the Stanford team is asking whether organic costs more when it doesn’t deliver more nutrients, why doesn’t the team also ask the flip side of the question—whether conventional gets to charge less because the toxic load is passed on to everyone?
That question gets to the penultimate tricky question of agricultural prices. Why do some get to offload costs to the environment for free, while those who contribute to a safer environment get no fee compensating them for their extra work on behalf of the public good? If an environmental fee was paid to the farmer producing the environmental service, then all farmers would compete on an even playing field, and no academics would ever have to ask whether organic delivers more value for the money.
Why doesn’t the Stanford team, or any of the media following their study, ask that? There I go again, answering my own question.
Wayne Roberts is on the board of Unitarian Service Committee of Canada-Seeds of Survival, which funds “cials” in Honduras, and he toured Honduras as one of their delegation.
To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.
Pesticides. Sprayed across vast expanses of farm land, they have become a ubiquitous part of industrial agriculture. But there may actually be more consequences to their use than we had previously predicted. A recent study headed by Chensheng Lu at Harvard University connects the rising phenomena of bee hive abandonment, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), to the use of a family of pesticides called neonicotinoids.
Scientists believe that pesticide use is a major factor in the recent worldwide decline in bee populations (Photo credit: Robert Gutowski)
Introduced in the early 1990s, neonicotinoids are today incorporated widely in industrial agricultural operations because they are readily taken up by plants, acting quickly and effectively on crop pests. But these pesticides also affect non-target pest species. When bees forage, they are exposed to neonicotinoids that are present in both the plants vegetative tissue and the nectar they feed on.
In Lu’s study, exposure to the neonicotinoid imidacloprid is shown to impact the homing ability of honeybees. Lu and his colleagues further suggest that neonicotinoids may be one of the central causes of CCD and the subsequent massive decline in bee populations since 2006. They link this decline in the U.S. and worldwide to the emergence of genetically engineered corn seed treated with neonicotinoids. Other factors such as pathogens and declining habitats further aggravate the loss of bee populations.
Pests can be, well, a pest. They infest crops and reduce yields, reducing overall agricultural production and food security. To deal with pests, such as mealybugs or spider mites, most farmers use chemical pesticides which can impact health, pollute water supplies through runoff, and, if pesticides are misused or overused, can actually kill plants. Finding new methods to get rid of pests without requiring chemical inputs has increasingly become a priority for many farmers.
Implementing these methods can save crops from destructive pests without the need for harmful pesticides. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Today, Nourishing the Planet introduces five crop management methods that control pests without using chemical pesticides.
1. Crop rotation: Crop rotation involves alternating the species of crop that a farmer grows on his or her land each year. Rotating crops helps prevent pests from getting used to the type of plant that is being cultivated. Planting different species of crops each growing season also promotes soil fertility. Planting legumes, a plant that helps fertilize crops through nitrogen fixing bacteria that it has on its roots, and then planting crops that require high levels of nitrogen helps make sure that soil is healthy each growing season. And healthy soil helps protect against pests because an imbalance in plant nutrition increases a harvest’s vulnerability to pests, according to Mans Lanting of ETC Foundation, a non- profit that focuses on linking agricultural sustainability to social development.
Winners at the San Francisco 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony. (Photo Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize)
In 2009 Intex, a Norwegian mining company, planned to build an open-pit nickel mine on the Philippine island of Mindoro, home to Catholic priest Edwin Gariguez. The project would produce several million tons of toxic waste, contaminating the island’s water resources and destroying the tropical forests. In order to protect the well-being of his community, Gariguez co-founded the Alliance Against Mining, a coalition of thousands of indigenous peoples, farmers, and local and provincial political leaders. Mindoro led communities in numerous protests against the mining project, even in the face of violence and verbal harassment from mining officials and the military. In 2002, Gariguez took his fight to the Norwegian parliament, bringing international attention to the mining project. In 2010, this pressure led to an investigation into the mine’s environmental and social violations by the Philippine government, who consequently revoked Intex’s permit for the mine.
Drip-irrigation systems, like this one in Niger, use significantly less water than conventional sprinklers. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
The report finds that the Green Revolution practices of the last century have had harmful effects on the environment, leading directly to land degradation, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. But supporting small-scale farmers, according to the report, can encourage the use of local innovations and experience, and mitigate the consequences of conventional agriculture. “Evidence has shown that, for most crops, the optimal farm is small in scale and it is at this level that most gains in terms of both sustainable productivity increases and rural poverty reduction can be achieved.”
According to the report “global food production needs to increase by 70 to 100 percent from current levels by 2050,” but this increase does not need to come from a doubling of the acres of farmland currently under production. Instead, investments in transportation and storage could reduce the amount of food that is wasted. A reduction in post-harvest losses—the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates a 50 percent loss of crops globally—could ease pressure on farmland already under production by maximizing the utility of their current yield.
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of worldwide water use. Any significant increase in conventional agriculture could exacerbate looming water shortages because conventional irrigation systems are usually inefficient —up to 40 percent of water pumped never reaches crops. By employing drip irrigation and other watering techniques, such as a buried clay pot system that stores water and treadle pumps, farmers can improve agricultural yields while decreasing water consumption.
In this episode, research intern Janeen Madan discusses how an alternative method of pest and disease prevention called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is helping to reduce farming costs, improve harvest quantity and quality, and increase farmer income, while also protecting the environment.
Pesticides are expensive and often hazardous to human health and the environment. In developing countries, farmers sometimes apply toxic chemicals without protective equipment, causing related health problems. And sometimes pests become resistant to pesticides, leading to increased—and less and less useful—pesticide applications.
The project’s researchers showed Ugandan farmers that IPM methods were “better, safer, and cheaper” than applying pesticides by conducting farmer field experiments and field research to find easy-to-apply tactics. (Photo credit: Shanidov, Flickr Commons)
One of eight collaborative research support programs set up by USAID, IPM CRSP supports research and education in 33 countries to spread adoption of the alternative agricultural approach Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
IPM includes a variety of methods to reduce chemical inputs, such as planting pest-resistant crop varieties, waiting to plant for several months during “no-host periods” to reduce opportunities for pests to reproduce, and using organic controls, such as insects that eat pests. When absolutely necessary, temporary and low-toxic pesticides are used by farmers. (more…)
This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!
Crop management practices such as crop rotation, intercropping methods, and increasing crop diversity are viable alternative options to chemical inputs. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Pests in a farming system—insects, birds, rodents, and even large mammals—can be devastating to production. This holds true for farms large and small, tropical and temperate, organic or conventional.
But are pesticide inputs the best solution for farmers wanting to rid themselves of pests and boost crop production? Not necessarily, according to organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and agricultural experts like Jules Pretty. Several agricultural production methods tackle pest problems without using chemical pesticides. The ability to cut costs, without sacrificing yields, can make these alternative systems more sustainable, particularly for small farmers.
Crop management practices such as crop rotation, intercropping methods, and increasing crop diversity are viable alternative options. Each of these approaches addresses the fact that pests grow in strength and number as farm production—in both farming methods and crop type—becomes too redundant over periods.
Crop rotations help deprive pests of the host necessary for long-term replication—growing different crops, more frequently means the pests don’t have a permanent host. Intercropping and mixed cropping can provide a means of “confusing” pests in their ability to find their natural host. In Kenya, for example, farmers have developed a “push-pull” intercropping technology with maize and cereals that has greatly reduced the effects of the devastating maize stem borer. Overall farm biodiversity is also an excellent tool for pest management. In The State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, Jules Pretty places particular importance on biodiversity in maintaining on-farm resilience to pests: “Pests and diseases thrive in monocultures because there is an abundance of food and few or no natural enemies to check their growth. In the end, pesticide resistance inevitably develops within populations and spreads rapidly unless farmers are able to use new products right away.”
Designing farms that provide habitats for pest predators also keeps crops safe. Maintaining or developing beetle banks, hedgerows, wild grass areas, and overgrown field margins are ways of providing predator environments. In an extensive study of biodiverse farming systems in developing countries published in 2006, Jules Pretty found that production on these farms averaged a 79 percent increase in crop yields over previous agricultural systems that did not focus on biodiversity in operations.
Managing soil fertility with natural fertilizers, such as animal manure, green manure, or compost can also help crops to ward off pests. Many farmers note that the best way to avoid pests is for crops to “outgrow” attacks. Since agricultural productivity starts with good soil, using on-farm materials to bolster soil organic matter will help to produce healthy, fast-growing crops.
For a holistic approach to keeping pests at bay, the system of Integrated Pest Management has proved effective. The FAO defines Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as the consideration of all available pest control techniques and appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations. IPM users aim to develop a holistic pest management system which considers the well-being of the overall farming system, encourages natural pest control options—such as those mentioned above—and minimizes pesticide use. This practice of viewing a farm holistically and adapting pest-management strategies on an individual basis makes IPM an effective tool. For example, in Asia, FAO has worked with farmers to develop IPM systems to improve the pest-resistance of various crops including cotton, okra, and watermelon.
Alternatives to chemical inputs exist when confronting pests in agriculture. Further research and outreach is necessary to help farmers develop effective and input-free pest management plans specific to their farming systems.
Tell Nourishing the Planet what works and have your answers featured on the blog. Email me at Dnierenberg@Worldwatch.org or tweet your response to @WorldWatchAg.
Amanda Strickler is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE .