Factors contributing to the declines or plateaus in food production rates include land and soil degradation, climate change and cyclical weather patterns, use of fertilizers and pesticides, and inadequate or inappropriate investment.
The new research raises critical questions about the capacity of traditional industrial agricultural methods to sustain global food production for a growing world population.
Food production will need to increase by about 60 percent by 2050 to meet demand.
A report published this month by Rabobank recommends cutting food waste by 10 percent, as more than 1 billion tonnes — half of which is related to agriculture — ends up being wasted.
More efficient use of water is necessary, the report said, such as micro-irrigation, to address a potential water supply deficit of 40 percent by 2030.
Currently, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global water demand.
The report also called for a reduction in dependence on fertilizers using “input optimization” methods designed to reduce the amount of energy and water required.
As 53 percent of fertilizer nutrients remain in the ground post-harvest, fertilizers contribute to soil degradation over time due to groundwater contamination, leaching, erosion and global warming.
The Rabobank obsession with focusing on the percentage improvement of existing industrial methods without quite grasping the scale of the problems facing industrial agriculture is a serious deficiency.
Two years ago, a landmark report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food demonstrated that agroecology based on sustainable, small-scale, organic methods could potentially double food production in entire regions facing persistent hunger over five to 10 years.
Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It.