Crop security is a state in which crops are diverse enough, nutritious enough, and plentiful enough to feed local or global populations and maintain health and quality of life.
World hunger has been an ongoing concern but appeared to be on the rise again in 2016. Crops are essential to addressing hunger and nutrition problems, including undernourishment and obesity. People get food to eat from three primary sources: rangelands or pastures, feedlots, and croplands. However, croplands produce the most food. Crops are the key to nutritious eating and reducing malnutrition. Otherwise, people can go hungry or have diseases associated with poor nutrition. In urban areas, low access to crops can cause people to rely on packaged and processed foods high in sugars and salts instead of the natural nutrients available in unprocessed crops. When land is not available on which to grow crops such as grains, vegetables, and fruits, shortages of nutrients affect health. In addition, crop security is both a short-term and long-term goal for food security and sustainability. In the short term, people in communities around the world must have enough food to eat and enough proper nutrients for health. In the long term, crop security ensures food supplies will continue in the future, by preserving crop lands, seeds, and sustainable growing methods.
Crop security depends on preserving fertile farmland or other growing areas, ensuring biodiversity in crops, and making sure crops yield as expected. A lack of diverse crops affects critical food for many people, and the nutrition they can obtain from food. Famine can occur when there is a severe shortage of food in a community. It can lead to mass starvation, deaths, and other medical and social problems.
Crops are produced in a number of ways around the world, and most large-scale industrial operations rely on high-input methods. Most invest in monoculture methods, growing one crop in large quantities. Around the world, many crops are grown on plantations, much as they were in the U.S. South. Plantation owners likely focus on crops native or adapted to the local climate and soil. These can include vegetables, bananas, coffee, or crops such as soybean grown for byproducts or livestock feed. Some industrial farmers have begun using large numbers of greenhouses and similar structures to extend the growing season in their areas or save water in dry climates. Industrial crop production typically involves expensive machinery, commercial chemicals for fertilizing and pest control, and high use of water.
Traditional farmers rely on subsistence agriculture or intensive agriculture. Subsistence agriculture is a more sustainable method, using humans and animals to accomplish the work and typically producing enough food for a single family. Intensive methods have higher inputs, might hire some labor, use more animals, and typically produce enough food for a family and a small amount to sell to others. Some grow a single crop, but most use polyculture, or growing of several crops in a given space. As biodiversity decreases, people around the world are increasingly eating similar crop products with similar nutrients, especially grains. These foods have helped ease malnutrition in many areas of the world but are not diverse enough to give people the various nutrients needed for health and resistance to disease.
Croplands are responsible for 77% of food for the world population, mostly in the form of grains. Since the 1990s, most (75%) crop diversity has been lost, leading to less availability of various nutrients. About 39% of the world's population practices traditional agriculture, which accounts for about one-fifth of the world's food crops.
Unsustainable farming practices such as monoculture and inefficient irrigation methods have increased crop insecurity. In addition, some genetic traits of long-grown plants have disappeared. Climate change and annual extreme weather events such as flooding and drought affect crop productivity. Climate oscillations have affected nearly two-thirds of global crop production since the mid-1990s. These include strong El Niño patterns, which have led to crop losses in African, Asia, and Latin America. The pattern has a large effect on soybean, rice, wheat, and maize (corn) yields. Periods of drought are becoming more frequent. In many areas of the world, conflict and war have displaced farmers and families or led to depleted crops and destruction of arable land. In some cases, food and crops are used as a weapon of war, when one side blocks trade or threatens those trying to grow and distribute crops.
Central African Republic conflicts, for example, have diminished crop production and food security for many years. Long-term and frequent waves of violence in the region nearly destroyed crop production, rearing of livestock, and fishing. Despite a 2015 peace agreement among many of the fighting factions, agriculture has been slow to recover. The local cereal crop declined nearly 70% in 2015 compared with production seven years earlier, before the conflicts began. The conflicts also affected local economy as cash crops declined.
Several international programs aim to preserve heirloom and important crops by safely storing seeds or improving the resistance of crops to drought or disease. Some countries have called on scientists to help preserve diversity in crops for future efforts. Seed vaults have been built to preserve crop seeds and ensure diversity in the event of continued problems with crop security or global catastrophe. Finally, public health efforts to improve water availability and safety work to improve crop security.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are part of a 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan adopted by world leaders to end poverty and inequality around the world and address climate change. The leaders developed a total of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), with overlapping targets and purposes. Among these goals are several that support improving crop security:
Being able to predict oscillations in climate such as El Niño can help to lessen climatic effects on crop production. Prevention also includes helping farmers around the world use sustainable practices to retain soil health and handle water efficiently. For example, controlling soil erosion provides healthy topsoil for growing. Use of methods such as cover crops, windbreaks around fields, and conservation or no-tilling methods are ways to grow food more sustainably and help ensure crop security. Efforts to provide safer, more accessible water can improve crop security.
New growing methods such as hydroponics, in which food is grown with roots immersed in water, can product food rich in nutrients. Plants can be grown in greenhouse facilities with lights, no soil, and little need for pesticides. However, the technology and buildings involve more up-front costs than traditional farming methods. Appropriate use of organic composts and fertilizers and permaculture methods also can improve plant health and crop yields. In addition, researchers continue to explore ways to improve plant biodiversity and increase production without harming the environment or people. Cross-breeding of crops and animals has occurred for hundreds of years. For example, ears of corn on ancient plants were about the size of a finger, not the size they are today. Although genetic modification is controversial, it helps develop crops that resist heat, drought, diseases, or pests.
Organic agricultural practices are on the rise, especially in the United States. Organic farming is healthier for the environment and produces food that promotes good health. Further, organic farms often operate locally and sell to their local communities instead of shipping to large chains. Efforts such as the UN SDGs approach crop and food security from many angles, including goals regarding poverty, human rights, and climate change.
See also Climate change ; Factory farming and industrial agriculture ; Food safety .
Bourne, Joel K. The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World. New York: Norton, 2016.
Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott E. Spoolman. Living in the Environment, 18th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.
Thiele, Leslie Paul. Sustainability: Key Concepts, 3nd ed. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016.
Heino, Matias, et al. “Two-thirds of Global Cropland Area Impacted by Climate Oscillations.” Nature Communications 9. Published electronically March 28, 2018. doi:10.1038/s41467-017-02071-5.
LaPlaze, Laurent, et al. “Editorial: Harvesting Plant and Microbial Biodiversity for Sustainably Enhanced Food Security.” Frontiers in Plant Science 9, no. 9. Published electronically January 31, 2018. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2017.-01577.
CropTrust. “Supporting Crop Consevation.” https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/supporting-crop-conservation/ (accessed April 8, 2018).
Kinver, Mark. “Crop Diversity Decline Threatens Food Security.” BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26382067 (accessed April 8, 2018).
United Nations. “Sustainable Development Goals.” http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainabledevelopment-goals/ (accessed March 31, 2018).
World Food Programme. “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2017.” http://www1.wfp.org/food-security-analysis (accessed April 7, 2018).
Teresa G. Odle, BA, ELS