The tenth in the series of events to mark FAPESP’s 60th anniversary featured a keynote presentation by Joachim von Braun, who chaired the Scientific Group for the UN Food systems Summit 2021 (photo: Léo Ramos Chaves/Pesquisa FAPESP)
Published on 05/02/2022
By José Tadeu Arantes | Agência FAPESP – More than 800 million people are hungry or undernourished worldwide, and the climate crisis could add another 100 million. More than 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Unsafe food affects about one in ten inhabitants of the planet.
This alarming situation is getting worse, despite extraordinary advances in the world’s food systems and the enormous amount of wasted food. The other side of the coin is accelerating destruction of the environment.
This was the overview presented by agricultural scientist Joachim von Braun in a talk entitled “The economics of land degradation and the true costs of food”, which he delivered as the 10th FAPESP 60 Years Lecture.
Von Braun is Professor for Economic and Technological Change at Bonn University’s Center for Development Research in Germany and President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican. He chaired the Scientific Group to the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit.
The online event on “Land use and food production” was held online on April 20 and can be watched on Agência FAPESP’s YouTube channel.
The discussants were Mariangela Hungria from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) and Laerte Guimarães Ferreira, a professor at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG).
Von Braun said food expenditures in the markets amount to USD 9 trillion per year, but the true cost of food is more than three times that amount – about USD 28 trillion – because the markets do not account for the cost of externalities, such as environmental degradation or the impact of unhealthy food, among other factors.
“Market prices don’t take into account the benefits of affordable healthy food and the damage done by unhealthy or unsustainable food. Business profits don’t reflect the value created or destroyed for society. The GDP of the food systems doesn’t reflect their contribution to welfare,” he said.
The UN Food Systems Summit made it clear that action to transform food systems is indispensable to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and adopted five priority action areas: nourish all people; boost nature-based solutions; advance equitable livelihoods, decent work and empowered communities; build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stresses; and accelerate the means of implementation.
The Scientific Group chaired by Von Braun presented seven science and innovation proposals to the summit. First, it proposed a bundle of context-specific policy and institutional innovations to end hunger and increase the availability and affordability of healthy diets and nutritious food. Next came action to de-risk food systems and strengthen resilience, prioritizing climate-neutral, climate-positive and climate-resilient food systems.
The list continued with innovations for efficient and fair land, credit, and labor arrangements; bioscience innovations to foster human health, food system productivity and ecological wellbeing; protection of soil, water, the genetic basis of agriculture and biodiversity; innovations for sustainable fisheries, aquaculture and protection of coastal areas and oceans; and digital innovations for efficiency and inclusiveness of food systems and rural communities.
Turning to Brazilian agriculture, and specifically to food crop production and yields, Hungria highlighted the contrast between Brazil’s dependence on imported fertilizer and its huge potential as a food producer for the world. The country imports 85% of the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium used in agriculture.
“External dependence is enormous and has increased in recent years,” she said. “In addition, the fertilizer we use is inefficient. A large proportion isn’t taken up by crops but remains in the soil and is wasted. Another problem is that both agriculture and land-use change are the components that most influence our greenhouse gas emissions. A kilo of nitrogen in use causes the emission of 10.7 kilos of CO2 equivalent.”
The best alternative is to use growth-promoting microorganisms in total or partial substitution of chemical fertilizer, with evident economic, environmental and social advantages. “We have decades of investment in research on microorganisms,” said Hungria, citing several examples of bacteria that can be used alone or in a co-inoculation system instead of chemical fertilizer.
A critical problem of the Brazilian countryside is the frequency of degraded pasturelands, which occupy an aggregate area corresponding to 21.2% of Brazil’s landmass, or almost three times the aggregate area of all croplands. “We have a combination of bacteria that can boost the productivity of the soil in these degraded pasturelands and make them available for agriculture without needing to destroy any more forests,” Hungria said.
The problem of degraded pasture was also discussed by Ferreira, the last speaker of the event. He noted that about 35% of Brazil’s landmass has been transformed by human activity (anthropized), and that a third of these changes have occurred in the last 37 years, corresponding to a rate of conversion without parallel elsewhere in the world. “Some 80% of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions are due to land-use change affecting forest areas and also to agriculture. Brazil is one of the top five countries in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
Ferreira is the creator and coordinator of the Image Processing and Geoprocessing Laboratory (LAPIG) at the Federal University of Goiás. LAPIG is one of Brazil’s foremost satellite data processing, analysis and distribution hubs.
He said 90% of the area that has been deforested since the start of colonization has been used for pasture at some point in time, and a large proportion of the existing pasture is now degraded. Public policy can change adverse conditions, he argued, presenting comparative data for 2010 and 2018 to show the potential of the Low-Carbon Agriculture Plan to rehabilitate degraded pasturelands. The plan took effect in 2011 and offers a specific line of credit for investment to reduce the environmental impact of agricultural activities. “Our analysis of the satellite data found robust evidence that some 27 million hectares of degraded pasturelands were rehabilitated between 2010 and 2018,” he said.
The event was opened by Ronaldo Aloise Pilli, Vice President of FAPESP, and moderated by Carlos Eduardo Pellegrino Cerri, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ-USP).
A recording of the event can be watched at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDOFkge3C3M.