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Sustainable management of natural resources

Will we be able to feed the world if our population reaches 10 billion people? UN population projections suggest that the population will reach ten billion between 2050 and 2100. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that food production has to rise 60% over the next 40 years to feed a growing population that is changing its eating habits in the context of a growing middle class and urbanisation. Climate change may also have a significant impact.

STOA has been looking into sustainability over the past five years. STOA is the Science and Technology Options Assessment body, which provides independent scientific advice to the European Parliament. STOA’s project, ‘Technology options for feeding 10 billion people’, looked at the options for European agriculture to come to terms with growing populations. The broad message was that agriculture needed to become more sustainable, and that this was a task for all stages of the food chain. Six main priorities were identified.

  1. Conserve the EU’s productive resources so that agriculture remains strong and has the potential to contribute more in future.

These resources include agricultural land, water supplies, infrastructure, a skilled workforce, and well-managed soils. This will require a concerted effort. To address soil deterioration, for example, agricultural practices must change, such as the use of larger machines in crop production that can lead to soil compaction. Farmers, too, must survive and be protected from volatility.

  1. Produce more – with fewer inputs.

Resources needed for agriculture should be used more efficiently. The ad hoc STOA workshop on 6 December 2012 workshop on the topic of ‘Precision agriculture and optimised use of fertilisers’ addressed an aspect of this issue. Speakers covered how technology could be used to increase yields while decreasing the use of fertilisers, which could reduce both financial and environmental costs of farming. The main message of the workshop was, ‘Science is needed in the fields; bring it from the universities to the farmers’.

  1. Encourage innovation and make sure that best practice is used across the EU.

This can increase productivity, helping European agriculture stay globally competitive. A workshop on ‘The impact of EU GMO regulation on agricultural biotechnology research’ on 25 February 2010 suggested biotechnology had great, currently unrealised potential to contribute to more effective agricultural production.

  1. Reduce European demand – a priority for the whole food chain.

To make agriculture sustainable, not just agriculture must change. Current diets are not sustainable. EU consumption of meat, dairy, and fish is about twice the global average – foods with a high environmental impact. The ‘How to feed the world in 2050?’ workshop on 4 December 2013 highlighted that changing behaviour will not be easy, as Europeans feel strongly about traditional food and are afraid of science and technology.

Food wastage too must be greatly reduced. The European Parliament resolution of 19 January 2012 on cutting food waste recognised that about 89 million tonnes of food waste were generated in the European Union (excluding Croatia), and called for this to be halved by 2025.

If you want to find out how you can do more, watch this STOA video on ‘Reducing your food eco-footprint’.

  1. Make sure policies on bio-energy align with strategies relating to food, agriculture, and biodiversity.

EU policies to promote the use of renewable energy have had the unintended consequence of promoting an increase in biofuels being produced from food crops. The study ‘Recycling Agricultural, Forestry & Food Wastes and Residues for Sustainable Bioenergy and Biomaterials’ made the case for the increased use of wastes and residues, as these place less pressure on agricultural land. It concluded that these wastes and residues had the potential to provide energy per year equivalent to 3-12% of Europe’s total energy consumption in 2011. However, the study noted that some of these so-called wastes already have other uses, and that there is still uncertainty as to how much residue can be taken while maintaining biodiversity and healthy soil.

  1. Support sustainable agriculture and combat threats to the supply of food – such as climate change and overuse of fresh water.

In November 2013, STOA hosted a dialogue between MEPs and some of the authors of the IPCC report on the physical science basis for climate change. The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This allowed the authors to present the report’s central findings that the human impact on the climate was clear from the scientific evidence. The debate that followed covered matters such as the likely level for sea rise, which it was suggested could be 50 centimetres to 1 metre across the globe by the end of this century, the societal impact of climate change, and a perceived lack of communication from the scientific community.

 Studies

 Study-related workshops

Ad hoc workshops

About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 25 MEPs nominated by nine EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.

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