I was privileged to join Zhengxia Dou of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School last month for the Food Security Forum in Beijing — an international conference focused on exploring policies and approaches to enable China to sustainably meet its growing food demand. Given China’s massive challenges in feeding its people while simultaneously attempting to improve the environment (particularly air and water quality), I can’t imagine a more timely and important discussion forum. We should all be rooting for China’s success here as the impact of this effort obviously goes beyond its borders and is a key component of the “feeding 9 billion by 2050” challenge.
The conference abstract said it all: Food is a basic necessity of man. This is universally true, regardless of time. How to meet the growing demand for food, particularly for nutrient-rich animal protein, in an era of dwindling natural resources and escalating environmental degradation is one of the greatest challenges facing mankind. Well said.
The conference featured numerous international speakers from leading agricultural institutions. Zhengxia Dou and the conference organizing committee did an excellent job in compiling an intensive two-day agenda of critical topics illustrating the challenge of balancing food production with environmental protection.
We began with a general session that addressed several key questions: How will China meet its growing food demand without seriously harming the environment? What are the major challenges and opportunities along the way? What are the global implications of China’s efforts to achieve food security? As noted in the opening remarks, despite eleven years of bumper harvests, food imports have continued to soar to feed a rising (and increasingly affluent) Chinese population — and China’s challenge is to produce more with less land, water, chemicals, and even less labor as urbanization continues and rural citizens continue to migrate to cities in search of better economic opportunities. In discussing pathways for sustainable intensification of agriculture, Achim Doberman of Rothamsted Research (UK) echoed this theme, noting that as the global economy continues to expand resources will be further challenged as 6/7th of the world’s population will want to “catch up” with the top 1/7th. That shift will seriously strain the environment and requires “transformative change” in our generation.
Jikun Huang of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy noted that China must focus on four key challenges — nutrition and food safety, rising labor and land costs, increasing scarcity of water and land, and development of a sustainable food system from production to consumption. Fusuo Zhang of China Agriculture University (CAU) discussed the transition of agriculture in China, pointing to the enormous increase in grain production that has been achieved with much more efficient fertilizer usage. He stressed the importance of reducing pollution, increasing soil fertility, and increasing nutrient-use efficiency.
Raj Khosla of Colorado State University discussed the great potential for precision agriculture in China — citing field work in which 40-60% reductions in nitrogen have been achieved with no decrease in yield. Lin Ma followed with a discussion of China’s efforts to achieve efficiency gains and reduce fertilizer use, nitrogen, greenhouse gas emissions, and the overall footprint needed to grow sufficient food.
The second panel focused on sustainable intensification in cropping systems — exploring the barriers and opportunities to sustainable intensification, strategies and technologies that are best applicable to helping China close the yield gap, and ways to enhance grain output without increasing chemical inputs. Jianhua Zhang of the Chinese University of Hong Kong noted that China’s food supply is threatened by water shortages in the north and northwest regions and pointed to the great potential for water saving agriculture techniques (irrigation management).
Keith Goulding of Rothamsted Research (UK) discussed the problem of static yields and pointed to several challenges related to the yield gap, including climate change, genetics, nitrogen use, poor soils, diseases and pests, crop rotation, and inadequate water. Fangzie Zhou of Nanjing Agricultural University covered agronomic and genetic approaches to improving food safety and nutrition, noting the toll that economic development has taken on the environment (ex. cadmium and arsenic levels in soils) and the challenge of producing more grain without losing micronutrients.
We began day two with a deep dive into sustainable intensification in animal systems in panel three. Key questions involved identifying 1) trends in (and predictions of) disease for animal products, 2) major gaps in productivity and efficiency in animal species, and 3) solutions to close those gaps. Shengli Li of CAU compared the dairy industry in China to that of the U.S., noting that land has become the most serious limiting factor for China — and that if China stopped importing feed it would not have enough stock to supply its herds. He also mentioned the importance of achieving the key goals of safety, productivity, and quality in the dairy sector. Zongyong Jiang of the Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Sciences followed and pointed to several challenges of the Chinese swine industry — including low productivity, a comparatively high disease rate, a shortage of feedstock, and appropriate management of waste.
Dave Galligan of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School reiterated the societal challenge at the heart of this panel – people want animal protein that is cheap and safe, with minimal impact on the environment – and therefore efficiencies of scale are critical. He stressed the importance of managing the biology of the cow in a way that ensures the economic viability of dairy operations, noting that with increased productivity, societal benefits (a reduction in the number of cows, and reduced land and resources needed to maintain them) will follow. Michael Lee of Rothamsted Research followed with a discussion of steps toward sustainable livestock with a focus on balancing yield and impact.
We then moved to the fourth major topic of the conference — sustainable consumption — with a focus on reducing food loss and waste. Shengkui Cheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences discussed food waste research in China and the need for more primary data collection. Junfei Bai of CAU then discussed the cultural issues and time opportunity cost of food waste in China, stressing (similar to the work of WRAP in the UK) the need to better understand food waste at the consumer level (i.e. what leads Chinese consumers to waste their money in this manner?).
Jim Ferguson of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School discussed the potential for using food waste as animal feed — a key opportunity for China. He noted examples of foods that are commonly used in U.S. livestock production systems, while also pointing to the many challenges that must be addressed along the way — including logistical challenges (such as high water content and sanitation requirements), storage challenges, regulation and residue issues (ex. mold and bacterial contamination), variability in supply, and variability in nutrients. I then followed with an overview of the need for a systems approach to reducing food loss and waste across the supply chain, noting the common (and very large) problems that China and the U.S. share regarding food waste, causes of food loss and waste in developing and industrialized nations, and the need for a “reframe” involving several key components for change. With the imminent challenge of feeding nine billion people by 2050, such an approach should be a global priority, and who better to lead it than China and the U.S.? The very nature of this Food Security Forum, and the collaborative exchange of information between multiple experts regarding how to assist China in meeting the challenge of sustainably feeding its people, suggests that such a critical effort focused on food waste can (and should) be scaled with immense global benefit. For as Zhengxia Dou of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School aptly noted in her concluding remarks, “everybody is a consumer, and everybody is a stakeholder, in this global food system.”