The need to innovate in food, water and energy systems for healthy land
India faces the challenge to produce more food with the same or a reduced land area, less water and energy.
India hosts the 14th Conference of Parties (COP14) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Government delegations from all corners of the world convene from 2nd to 13th September to review progress and challenges ahead for the 25-year old international agreement that links environment and development with sustainable land management. The Conference theme ‘restore land to sustain life’ draws attention to the criticality of land for supplying water, energy and food: the nexus that places sustainable land management at the foundation of local and global efforts towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The 2017 first ever Global Land Outlook summed up the big picture. Land is under pressure with rapidly escalating competition between land for food, water, energy and settlements, and land for the ecological services that regulate all life on Earth. Globally over 1.3 billion people are trapped on degrading agricultural land, and these dryland farmers have limited options for alternative livelihoods and accessing wider infrastructure and economic development. Biodiversity loss and climate change further undermine the productivity and health of land.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released its special report on Climate Change and Land. An estimated 23% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions derive from Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU). Temperature increases above land double the global mean increase. Higher surface temperatures contribute to desertification (water scarcity), land degradation (erosion, vegetation loss, wildfire, etc.) and declining food security (crop yield and food supply instability).
Competition for land is projected to escalate further, in particular in South Asia and other regions with higher population density and growth, lower per capita income, increasing water stress and higher biodiversity loss. Sustainable land management is needed to prevent and reduce land degradation and maintain its productivity, with possibility to reverse in some cases the adverse impacts of climate change on land. The aim is no further net loss of healthy and productive land, a concept known as land degradation neutrality. This is possible with measures at landscape level that balance biological and economic productivity, increase resilience of ecosystems and communities, and manage rural-urban interfaces. This will only be possible with transformations in the way we consume, produce, work and live together.
Changes are particularly needed in all stages of the food system: making primary production more efficient in terms of water, land and other inputs; tackling food waste through better processing, storage and preparation; shifting diets and lifestyles; and creating additional wealth from the unavoidable remaining wastes. Innovations are needed and indeed forthcoming also in India as shown amongst others by the work of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
India faces the challenge to produce more food with the same or a reduced land area, less water, energy and other inputs, with projected increasing climate variability, degrading land and declining water tables. Agriculture accounts for some 90% of water use, yet irrigation efficiency is low compared to international practice. In a joint project with the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) UNIDO is promoting innovations in irrigation and its pumping systems to produce ‘more crop per drop with less energy’.
This is well possible with precision irrigation that delivers the right amount of water at the right time dripped at the right spot, based on real-time crop demands, soil condition and weather forecasts. And, requires a reliable power supply to run efficient and smart pumps that supply water on demand rather than on a schedule dictated by energy price or availability of free power. To catalyze innovation and entrepreneurship BEE and UNIDO offer an accelerator platform to support innovators trialing and improving their inventions towards precision low-carbon irrigation and scaling these up into start up enterprises.
The next lever towards sustainable land management lies in reducing food wastage, both the so-called post-harvest losses, during processing and supplying of food to markets, as well as meal preparation wastes, from the consumer’s kitchen. The lower level of food processing in India, relative to international benchmarks, is cause of concern as it generally increases the amount of farm produce going to waste because of inadequate cooling, processing or packaging at any stage between ‘farm and fork’.
Whilst most improvements in food processing are beneficial towards reduction of food waste, and – indirectly – improving sustainable land management, there is a case to specifically pursue energy- and resource efficient solutions. UNIDO, for example, under its global cleantech programme has supported commercialization of highly efficient solar dryers to preserve fruits and spices at household or community level and is piloting energy efficient solutions to speed up decentralized initial chilling of milk to preserve quality and to keep food properly chilled in delivery vans without emitting further exhausts in crowded urban spaces.
A related opportunity exists in using agricultural and other organic wastes for recovery of nutrients, production of energy or of other valuable materials, thereby turning waste into wealth. Working with Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), UNIDO has set out to demonstrate advanced bio-methanation techniques to turn waste from poultry, fruit and vegetable, sugar and other industries into biogas and return valuable nutrients back to the soil. Likewise, paddy straw is a resource waiting to be utilized, for example, for production of paper and boards. Other Indian startups are, for example, producing biodegradable sanitary pads from waste banana fibre and extracting the highly beneficial Omega 3 acids from silk work pulp.
These and other innovative examples already make good business sense, due to cost savings and productivity improvements, whilst also contributing directly or indirectly to maintaining and restoring healthy and productive lands. Their scale and impact though remain so far small, highlighting the need for a concerted policy push to create a groundswell initiative for land restoration through nexus innovations in water, energy and food systems
(René Van Berkel, is Representative of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to India. The views expressed are personal.)