OCEANS COVER two-thirds of the earth’s surface. Of the remaining one-third, about 30 percent comprises deserts, tundra and mountains where no food can be grown. From the remaining land, we have been clearing forests ever since we learnt to use the plough and reached a point in the past century when it became ecologically suicidal to fell more trees to grow foodgrain. So, since 1960, agricultural land has expanded by just 12 percent.
Though global population has more than doubled in the same time, technology has helped us feed more and more mouths. In 1960, it took 0.45 hectares of cropland to grow enough food for one person. Today, it takes just 0.22 hectares. Yet, hunger is widespread and the future looks uncertain.
Globally, the per capita cropland availability is about 0.23 hectares. High-income countries cultivate more than twice the area per capita (0.37 hectares) than low-income (0.17 hectares) countries. And population stability in high-income, developed countries will ensure that their average per capita of available cropland will not significantly change until 2050.
But in less developed countries, a person may be left with less than 0.1 hectares in the next four decades. Given the poor farm yield in these countries, this amounts to sinking below the per capita bottom line of 0.07 hectares set by the UN required to maintain a minimal nutrition level. That would be disastrous.
At the same time, as developing countries make economic progress, their dietary preference seems to be shifting from cereals and grains to animal products. In China, for example, annual per capita grain consumption in the cities dropped from 145 kg to 78 kg between 1981 and 2004, while intake of meat products jumped from 20 kg to 29 kg. This puts huge pressure on land. Potato or rice grown on one hectare can feed 20 people for a year. The same area will produce enough lamb or beef for just two people.
While the sustainability of using pastureland for livestock grazing has become a contentious issue in India between conservationists and herders, mechanised mega dairies and their demand of processed feed are putting additional pressure on land. At the same time, sacrifice of prime agricultural land for infrastructure, industry and urbanisation continues unabated.
Between 1955 and 2000, more than 23 lakh hectares of agricultural land was converted to support urban growth in India. The pace of urbanisation, including the rush for SEZs, has only increased since. An alarm was sounded last year: the UN Convention on Biological Diversity report released in Hyderabad during the COP-11 said rapid loss of farmland to urbanisation would risk India’s food security in the near future.
As farmers resist acquisition of agricultural land across the country, TEHELKA travels to the hilly state of Arunachal Pradesh where a spate of dams will drown the few available patches of fertile alluvial land. We also turn with hope to arid Karnataka where 55 lakh hectares of fallow land has been recharged with micronutrients in the past five years.