State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Assessing Global Metrics for Agriculture


On October 1, I attended a symposium entitled “Going Beyond Rhetoric: Metrics for Assessing Global Agriculture,” hosted by the Earth Institute and convened at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.  Fifteen stories in the air, we were surrounded by miles of urban landscape — Queens to the east, Manhattan to the west, and no farms in sight.  In a room full of policy-makers, scientists, scholars, lobbyists, and economists, the vast landscape helped to emphasize the scope and scale of the decisions being made that day — how far-reaching the ideas being discussed went, beyond the horizon.

The goal of the conference was to establish concrete metrics — or targets — for determining desirable agricultural impacts.  The conference was divided into four sessions that each begged a different question: where will our nutrient sources come from to feed a rapidly growing population?  How can we develop an ecologically robust agricultural landscape?  What are the potentials and risks of GE crops?  And what are the ways forward?

Perhaps we should first ask ourselves: why should we even care?  Won’t business as usual be enough to feed our populations — that is, assuming present diets don’t change? The truth, however, is that by 2050 the Earth’s population is expected to reach 9 billion people and will require at 120% increase in current levels of production.  With the majority of our world population now living in urban areas, and climate change already altering our agricultural landscape and productive outputs, how are we going to feed that many people while still meeting targets for real sustainability?

Some important facts came to light during the conference:
1. Already today, 1 billion people are starving or chronically malnourished.  Another 1 billion are chronically overweight!
2. To continue business as usual, by 2050 we would have to clear an additional 900 million hectares of land, which would put increasing pressure on our tropical rainforests, which already work as vast carbon sponges.
3. At the very most, we will only really be able to add an additional 100 million hectares.  There are 4.3 million hectares under cultivation presently.
4. Already, agriculture accounts for 1/3 of total greenhouse gas emissions, largely from deforestation, livestock, carbon-intensive transportation, and rice paddies.  That fact alone already necessitates agricultural reform!
5. Agriculture accounts for 85% of human water consumption, altering hydrologies and depleting aquifers around the world.

While by no means an entirely comprehensive picture of the state of conventional agriculture, every scholar, scientist, and policy-makers present that day used these facts to reemphasize the necessity of establishing metrics to figure out how to measure the success or failures of reforms for the future.

So what did they determine?  According to the Tropical Agriculture Project’s summary of the symposium, participants established six necessary categories into which all our metrics should fall: environmental sustainability, social well-being, national prosperity, food security, human health, and rural livelihoods.  Perhaps even more importantly, participants discussed the feasibility of implementing universal metrics.  While surely the idea and implementation of a set of universal metrics is not without problems, it gives us an idea of what we can do to move forward.  As I explore more thoroughly the challenges climate change poses to agriculture over the next few months, it will be good to keep those categories, and the above facts, in mind.

The symposium’s web page can be found here, and the symposium wrap up here (pdf).

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