The UN estimates in the World Population Prospects report that the global population will rise to nearly 10 billion people by 20501. Simultaneously the challenges facing climate change will increase. The way food is produced today is on the other hand a major contributor to some of the environmental problems. This article explores the connection between sustainable development and food production in addressing the challenges of the future. Several techniques for more sustainable food production are discussed together with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in this article.
In 2015, the United Nations member states agreed upon The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It consists of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to be achieved by 2030, as well as 169 more-detailed sub-targets2. SDG 2, “zero hunger”, aims to reduce hunger and, among other objectives, seeks to increase agricultural productivity and the incomes of small-scale food producers3.
To address the challenges of the future, it is crucial to move away from large-scale monoculture production, which currently serves as a major contributor to reducing hunger globally. However, controversy surrounding monoculture production is growing steadily. Some of the primary drawbacks are increased risk of disease and pest invasions due to the lack of plant and animal diversity, which would limit the spread of diseases and control pests through predation. In response to this, pesticides are increasingly being used, which in turn pollute the surrounding environment. Additionally, growing the same crops year after year leads to reduced availability of nutrients and degrades the soil. Another downside is intensive mechanisation leading to increased fossil fuel use and therefore increased greenhouse gas emissions4.
To underscore the significance of sustainable food production, two case examples are particularly suitable: groundnut production in Senegal and sugar cane production in the Amazon.
Senegal relies on groundnut production and exports. However, since 1970, falling groundnut prices, adverse weather conditions, and economic shocks have significantly reduced Senegal’s earnings from groundnut exports. This decline is additionally coupled with environmental degradation caused by groundnut production, which has adversely affected the cultivation of major food crops like millet, sorghum, rice, and maize. In the regions, where agriculture is crucial for livelihoods, these circumstances make it increasingly difficult for people to sustain their living5.
Similarly dire is the situation in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Brazil leads the global production of sugar cane, with significant growth in the past decade. However, the expansion of sugar cane monoculture, particularly in the Amazon, threatens the environment and traditional indigenous territories6.
This intensive monoculture thus poses a threat to ecological and social aspects of sustainability. Both examples show that there is a need for new and sustainable ways of agricultural production.
In order to feed the growing global population sustainably, it is imperative that we explore smarter approaches. This entails harnessing high-tech assistance, embracing organic and regenerative agriculture practices, advancing indoor food production methods, and incorporating new types of food into the daily cuisine7, as depicted in figure 1. In the following sections, we will introduce and discuss each of these methods.
More Biodiversity with Less Space Required
As food production around the world will need to increase by 70 per cent by 2050 to feed the world’s population, various approaches to maximising crop yields will be crucial in the future3.
The Permaculture Design Principles8 are a set of universal design principles, derived from various scientific disciplines, that can be applied to any location, climate, and culture. Sustainable food production systems that are designed based on permaculture principles will adopt arrangements that occur in natural ecosystems and use whole-system thinking. Permaculture supports more “natural” approaches to agriculture that allow for efficient and harmonious food production9.
Agroecology is an academic field that studies ecological processes in combination with agricultural practices. The goal is to improve food yields for balanced nutrition while at the same time enhancing healthy ecosystems. The guiding principles are biological and cultural diversity which feature small-farmer-centred policies that protect their livelihoods. Consumers are increasingly demanding healthier food and a closer connection to its producers10.
Intercropping is an agricultural practice that involves cultivating two or more crops during the same season in the same field. Several species of annuals and perennials are grown in between each other as an alternative to monoculture farming (see figure 2). Examples include garlic and tomatoes, or coffee and bananas, which entails tending to the species’ different needs. Reasons for intercropping include saving space and resources, ensuring better yields, repelling pests, reducing weeds, and providing nutrients for neighbouring plants11.
Agroforestry is another example of a land management approach that combines several species and approaches in the same space. It means intentionally integrating agricultural practices like pasture and crops with forestry. This has multiple benefits. Planting trees, shrubs, and hedges on farms can help to maintain healthier soil, while housing wildlife and natural predators of common crop pests, thus reducing the need for pesticides. Tree roots reach deep into the ground, cycling nutrients and binding the soil, preventing it from being eroded. In the silvo-pastoral approach, animals can be allowed to graze under the trees, fertilising the soil, while trees provide shelter and fodder for the animals. Following the silvo-arable approach, crops are grown beneath trees, often in rows which are large enough for a tractor to tend to the crops without damaging the trees. Beyond their positive impact on wildlife and soils, diverse systems are more productive than monocultures. Agroforestry has already been rated as one of the most promising systems for the “sustainable intensification” of farming, meaning that farmers can produce more food while also reducing negative impacts on the environment12 (see figure 3).
Indoor and Vertical Farming Techniques
Indoor and vertical farming techniques grow produce stacked one above another in a closed and controlled environment. By using growing shelves mounted vertically, produce is able to thrive in limited space, which makes it especially suitable for city and urban farming.
The benefits are manifold. Labour costs are reduced, and technological advances allow the controlling of every aspect of growing crops. Light, which is in most cases provided artificially, humidity, and water can all be precisely allotted to the plants’ needs. Studies show that vertical farms use up to 70 per cent less water than traditional farms, which is key in drought-prone zones. The use of technology can help vertical farmers to optimise energy use and light, temperature, and humidity levels. Since crop growth is then no longer dependent on weather, temperatures, or daylight, produce can be grown reliably all year round. As indoor vertical farms are completely sealed off from the outside environment, there are virtually no pests, making pesticides or herbicides redundant13. A lot more attention should be given to improvements in indoor vertical farming, as it can produce a tremendous yield per available growing space. Vertical farms can improve even more in terms of energy consumption due to lighting and temperature control.
Some set-ups are unique in that they do not require soil. Approaches can be hydroponic, where vegetables are grown in a nutrient-dense bowl of water, or aeroponic, where the plant roots are systematically sprayed with water and nutrients. This is possible because plants grow through photosynthesis. The chemical equation for photosynthesis does not contain soil, which means that plants can grow without it. What they do need is water and nutrients, both obtainable from nutrient-rich solutions. Nutrients are much more easily obtainable from these solutions than from soil, which is why they need much smaller root systems and can divert more energy into leaf and stem growth. With smaller roots, you can grow more plants in the same area and get more yield from the same amount of ground. Many pests are carried in soil, so having no soil generally makes the growing system more hygienic, with fewer problems of disease. Since hydroponics is ideal for indoor growing, you can use it to grow plants all year round. Drawbacks of hydroponics are high costs associated with the necessary equipment, and significant time needed to check on the plants if there are no automated systems for the purpose. In theory, you can grow any plant hydroponically, but some plants do better than others. Fruit crops such as tomatoes and strawberries, and lettuces and herbs, are among plants that do particularly well14 (see figure 4).}
Fungi are an ideal example of how a healthy soil ecosystem helps plants and the planet thrive. The interdependence of plants and fungi is a partnership that has evolved over millions of years. A major component of soils in terms of biological carbon is from fungi, mycelium both living and dead. Some scientists have stated that fungal mycelium is the largest repository of biological carbon in healthy soils. Mycelium is the fine web of whitish material that can be seen if one pulls a mushroom up. This is an intricate root system that not only feeds the fungi growing from it, but also cleanses the soil of toxins, sequesters carbon, and supplies fresh nutrients to surrounding plant life. Mycelium weaves itself into the roots of plants, which act as a host for the growing fungal network. While the plants keep mycelium alive, it in turn breaks down organic matter and helps the soil retain moisture, providing plants with a direct channel to both water and nutrient-rich soil. Not only do mushrooms help keep forests alive, but they also play a larger role in climate change by sequestering carbon.
It was previously thought that carbon was stored in forest floor waste, like dead leaves and pine needles, but research has found that much carbon is stored below the surface of the soil in these complex fungal root networks. Recent research has also uncovered a potential link between mushrooms and bee health. With bee colonies already in decline across the globe, it has been found that mycelium extract could provide an added immunity benefit to bees threatened by infectious viruses. Feeding bees mycelium extracts of some polypore mushrooms reduced pathogenic viruses hundreds to thousands of times in less than two weeks.
These viruses threaten worldwide food biosecurity. The tracts from polypore mushrooms have also been shown in the laboratory to reduce viruses pathogenic to other animals, including humans. The potential of fungi stretches far beyond food into fields like pharma, textiles, electronics, and construction15 (see figure 5). Mycelium can also play a role in sustainable food production. The use of organic or bio-fertilisers made from plant-based materials like mycelium for agriculture has gained significant attention over chemical fertilisers16. Mushroom farms are highly scalable. They consume little to no energy to produce tremendous yields of a protein-substituting superfood.
Food Security and Gender Equality
When it comes to improving sustainable food production, the social dimension must be taken into account. In the countries most affected by climate change, especially in the Global South, women make up half of all agricultural workers. Yet, they face great obstacles in accessing land, technology, markets, infrastructure, and services. Land ownership patterns are skewed in favour of men in the majority of countries17. SDG 5, gender equality, aims to achieve gender equality and empower women18. Can it help to improve food security as well? Indeed, SDG 5 includes two elements which have a critical influence on food security: women’s access to land and to natural resources.
Access to land for women who earn their living in agriculture is crucial for the socioeconomic conditions of many households, their food security and nutrition. In this respect, however, SDG 5 is most effective when combined with the objectives of SDG 2, which include advancement for women in agriculture19. Thus, pursuing the synergies of these goals in parallel not only promotes sustainable food production systems, but also recognises the important role that women play in them.
To achieve these goals, considering the current unequal circumstances, there is a great need to promote sustainable food production systems and resilient agricultural practices.
The techniques presented in this article, especially those that enable resilient and high-yielding cultivation in limited spaces (for example, agroforestry), can be an important step in supporting women and simultaneously ensuring food security for many households worldwide.
Discussion and Outlook
The concepts presented hold great potential for a shift to sustainable agriculture. To achieve food security for a growing population without damaging the environment, these ideas need to be implemented on a large scale. However, the monoculture approach is still dominating, despite the knowledge of the devastating consequences. What does it take to create change and strengthen alternatives?
To make progress in the transition, it is important to examine why monoculture is this persistent. There are several reasons for this. First, the food production supply chain involves many actors who specialise in monoculture production, for example with machinery, storage facilities, and transport networks. Shifting to diversified cropping systems would therefore require significant investment and changes to a whole system of existing infrastructure.
Secondly, monoculture agriculture offers high yields and lower production costs in the short term compared to diversified new cropping systems. The short-term economic advantage provides an incentive for farmers to continue monocropping in order to survive in a fiercely competitive environment. In addition, years of knowledge have been built up on this type of farming and little on alternative forms20.
Thirdly, most land is currently used for livestock feed, for example by growing maize or soya. Thus, high meat consumption is another factor that reinforces monoculture. Figure 6 shows the comparison of land use. It can be seen that most land is used for meat production and only a very small part for innovative alternative techniques. Part of the future solution would be to drastically reduce livestock farming to free up more land for food that could be grown and sold directly to people, instead of being passed through animals. The impact would be to shift to a more plant-based diet that is free from meat and dairy products.
Finally, food policies, in some cases, favour monoculture systems by providing incentives and subsidies. Changing these policies to promote diversified farming systems can be a slow and complex process21.
Nonetheless, a transition in the way food is produced and consumed is necessary. However, the hindering factors show that it is a highly complex issue. Therefore it calls for the integration of several SDGs. In addition to gender equality, the topic also touches on “sustainable production and consumption” (SDG 12). This goal includes the promotion of sustainable practices in food production. SDG 13, “climate action”, is also called for, as agriculture is not only an important factor influencing climate change, but on the contrary should, as already described, be part of the solution. Similarly, SDG 15, “life on land”, is relevant, as it aims to protect biodiversity, promote the restoration of degraded ecosystems, and ensure sustainable land use.
However, the aforementioned impeding factors also show that a political component is required and that we are dealing with a problem of global proportions. Therefore, fostering SDG 17, “partnerships for the goals”, is highly relevant22.
Part of the debate on a future-oriented mode of agriculture is innovation in technology and infrastructure, which is reflected in SDG 9, “industry, innovation and infrastructure”. The precision-agriculture approach is one technique that can contribute to the transition in a technical manner.
The aim of precision agriculture is to use new technologies to increase crop yields and profitability in an attempt to lower the levels of traditional inputs needed to grow crops (land, water, fertiliser, herbicides, and insecticides) – that is, use less to grow more.
Technologies such as GPS devices on tractors enable efficient planting and navigation, saving time and fuel. Laser levelling of fields improves the efficiency of water application, minimising waste. Data monitoring and analysis help make informed farming decisions based on weather, soil, and pest conditions. Drones can be used for field monitoring and precise application of fungicides and pesticides. Japan, for example, has already embraced drone technology for rice field spraying. Robotics, like row bots and lettuce bots, are being developed to perform tasks more efficiently, such as precise fertiliser application and weed control. These advancements enhance sustainability, food availability, and profits in agriculture23 (see figure 7).
Nevertheless, the past has taught us that greater efficiency and monitoring through technology often only increases the scale of the problem. The technical component is valuable, but must go hand in hand with the other alternative approaches to agriculture that can be subordinated to the various SDGs, thus promoting innovation, a healthy environment, food security, gender equality, and global partnerships.
Producing enough food for a rising global population is a future challenge whose solutions have to be designed and implemented now. The issue of world nutrition that uses resources sustainably and that suits the needs of an increasing population might seem distant, but becomes even more urgent the further climate change progresses and the more evident its impacts become. Not only are livelihoods threatened, but also the functioning of healthy ecosystems and biodiversity that are so vital to food production. Agricultural practices make all the difference and have a huge potential for sustainable change, since they manage vast areas in every country in the world.
Monoculture, the most common agricultural practice so far, has often been chosen as the most economic and profitable strategy, albeit at the cost of decreasing ecosystem health and biodiversity. Countermeasures were covered in this article, including solutions that help to support biodiversity with less space required, for example intercropping and vertical indoor farming.
Moreover, gender equality as envisioned by SDG 5 is crucial in implementing sustainable agricultural practices. It is essential to strive for equal rights and opportunities for all genders when implementing sustainable agricultural practices in all countries around the world.
The authors would like to thank Prof. Dr Lou Ziyang, Shanghai Jiao Tong University in the School of Environmental Science and Engineering and in the Low Carbon College, vice dean of the Research Centre of the Solid Waste Disposal and Resource, and leader of the Chair in the China Institute for Urban Governance, for years of support in this scientific area.
About the Authors
Nadine Karnetzke holds two bachelor’s degrees in cultural studies and psychology from Leuphana University Lüneburg. In her work, she promotes interdisciplinary exchange. As a psychological consultant, she supports individuals and teams. She is now studying in the interdisciplinary Master’s programme in Sustainability Science at Leuphana University Lüneburg.
Lena Wege finished a bachelor’s degree in Global Environmental and Sustainability Studies as a major and Psychology and Society as a minor at Leuphana University Lüneburg. In her studies, she focused on the improvement of climate change communication to the public and solutions to climate-related societal and global issues.
Michael Palocz-Andresen is a guest professor at BUAP Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. From 2018-21 he worked as a Herder professor supported by the DAAD at the TEC de Monterrey in Mexico. He became a full professor at the University West Hungary 2005-17. Currently, he is a guest professor at the TU Budapest, the Leuphana University Lüneburg, and at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He is a Humboldt scientist and instructor of the SAE International in the USA.
- United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (June 2019). World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights. https://population.un.org/wpp/Publications/Files/WPP2019_10KeyFindings.pdf (8 June 2023)
- United Nations (2015). Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. https://sdgs.un.org/sites/default/files/publications/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf (8 June 2023)
- United Nations. (7 November 2022). Goal 2: Zero Hunger – United Nations Sustainable Development. United Nations Sustainable Development. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/
- Burns, H.A. (2017). “Southern Corn Leaf Blight: A Story Worth Retelling”. Agronomy, 109(4). https://doi.org/10.2134/agronj2017.01.0006
- Gro Intelligence. (20 February 2015). Polishing Peanuts: The Senegalese Groundnut Story. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. https://gro-intelligence.com/insights/polishing-peanuts-the-senegalese-groundnut-story
- Ferrante, L. & Fearnside, P. (2018). Amazon Sugarcane: A Threat to the Forest. Science. 359. 10(1126). http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aat4208
- Liu, C.L.C., Kuchma, O. & Krutovsky, K.V. (2018). “Mixed-species versus monocultures in plantation forestry: Development, benefits, ecosystem services and perspectives for the future”. Global Ecology and Conservation, 15, e00419.
- Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.
- Bohler, D. (5 September 2017). Permaculture Design in 5 Steps. The Permaculture Research Institute. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2017/09/05/permaculture-design-5-steps/#:~:text=Permaculture%20design%20is%20 essentially%20a,of%20designing%20human%2Dcentred%20 landscapes (8 June 2023)
- Chalmer, L. (26 April 2019). Agroecology: A Systems Approach. Medium/Resilience. https://www.resilience.org/stories/2019-04-26/agroecology-a-systems-approach/ (8 June 2023)
- Mohler, C.L, Stoner, K.A & Johnson, S.E. (2009). Crop Rotation on Organic Farms. Guidelines for Intercropping. https://www.sare.org/publications/crop-rotation-on-organic-farms/guidelines-for-intercropping/ (8 June 2023)
- World Agroforestry. What is Agroforestry?. https://www.worldagroforestry.org/about/agroforestry (Last retrieved ~ February 2023, no longer accessible)
- Avgoustaki, D.D. & Hydis, G. (25 September 2020). “How energy innovation in indoor vertical farming can improve food security, sustainability, and food safety”. Advances in Food Security and Sustainability. 5. 1-51. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.af2s.2020.08.002
- Trees.com staff (10 February 2022). “Hydroponic Systems: Different Types and How They Work”. Trees.com. https://www.trees.com/gardening-and-landscaping/hydroponic-systems
- Wakotola, G. & Temesgen, T. (27 September 2018). “Application of Mushroom as Food and Medicine”. Advances in Biotechnology and Microbiology, 11(4). 555817. http://dx.doi.org/10.19080/AIBM.2018.11.555817
- Bosman, A. (March 2022). Insect Farming Could have Huge Benefits for Crop Production. Earth.com. https://www.earth.com/news/insect-farming-could-have-huge-benefits-for-soil-fertility-and-crop-production/ (8 June 2023)
- Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Sustainable Development Goals – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.fao.org/sustainable-development-goals/goals/goal-5/en/&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1684421728462657&usg=AOvVaw0mKzgGhD5fya1lk9y9qIMk (8 June 2023)
- United Nations. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Goal 5 – Achieve Gender Equality and Empower all Women and Girls. https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal5 (8 June 22023)
- United Nations. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Goal 2 – End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal2 (8 June 2023)
- Crews, T.E., Carton, W. & Olsson, L. (2018). “Is the future of agriculture perennial? Imperatives and opportunities to reinvent agriculture by shifting from annual monocultures to perennial polycultures”. Global Sustainability, 1, 1-18. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/sus.2018.11
- Leach, M., Nisbett, N., Cabral, L., Harris, J., Hossain, N. & Thompson, J.F. (17 June 2020). “Food Politics and Development”. World Development, 134, 105024. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105024
- United Nations. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “The 17 Goals”. https://sdgs.un.org/goals (8 June 2023)
- International Society of Precision Agriculture. An International Journal on Advances in Precision Agriculture, 11119.