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Strategy from competitive cycling could free up around a fifth of agricultural land

Posted July 20, 2019

Human population is growing at an unprecedented pace and we see no end of this process. Meanwhile our resources are limited – feeding everyone is not going to be easy. Now scientists from the University of Edinburgh and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology conducted a research and found that applying a trick from competitive cyclists could actually free up around a fifth of agricultural land.

Small improvements in every part of food production, supply and diet could make a huge difference on a global scale. Image credit: G.steph.rocket via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

There is a principle applied in the British cycling team, which basically improves the chances of success. The strategy is called marginal gains – a basic idea that making a lot of tiny changes can lead to significant effects overall. In cycling it can be tiny changes in the gear to make it lighter. In growing food it is many little improvements in every link of the chain, including production, logistics and even consuming the end product. The problem is that drastic changes are difficult to make. Small changes can be largely irrelevant on their own, but all together can make for something very impactful.

Scientists decided to see what that impact would be. They chose such improvements as reduction of food waste, improved diet, optimized food production and some others. Their calculations showed that these small changes reduced the amount of land required to feed the planet by at least 21 %. Scientists say that different changes could be implemented in countries with different economic situations. For example, developed countries could make significant gains by altering diets. Meanwhile developing countries should focus on increasing the efficiency of production. But would these changes prove to be too hard to implement?

Not really, because they are not dramatic. Eating slightly less meat, switching to chicken or pork over beef and lamb, and reducing transport and processing losses are not crazy ideas. Meanwhile other suggestions of the scientists, such as eating more insects plant-based imitation meat and lab-grown meat, will sound icky to most.

Dr Peter Alexander, one of the authors of the study, said: “While a transformational change is required, we need an approach that is achievable in practice. A vegan or vegetarian diet isn’t likely to be adopted by everyone and we think a set of small steps in the right directions will be more likely to be adopted and ultimately successful, and will go a substantial way to reducing the negative outcomes”.

We have to improve our food production efforts. Everything has to be more efficient, less wasteful and generally better. We cannot make giant changes overnight, but smaller improvements are certainly possible. Not eating insects though, but the other ones are good and easy.


Source: University of Edinburgh

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