To Feed Nine Billion

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

It’s a question we’re going to ask ourselves a lot in the coming years: how on Earth (literally) are we going to continue to feed our rapidly-growing global population?

The goals are these: to end world hunger, to double food production by 2050, and to achieve both while at the same time drastically reducing the damage conventional agriculture does to our environment and climate. Dr. Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota, has five very persuasive and practical ideas on how we can increase the world’s food output to better feed the globe.

  1. Stop expanding agriculture’s footprint. It’s been shown over and over that we can feed an additional four billion from the world’s existing cropland – the problem of not having enough food arises because of yield gaps and food waste. Expanding agricultural efforts into already threatened tropical forests and savannas results in increased carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity. These valuable habitats can be preserved by seeking alternative sources for biofuel (such as non-edible switchgrass instead of corn) and investing in programs such as the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation program (REDD).
  2. Close the world’s yield gaps. Rather than helping already high-yield farms raise their “yield ceiling”, we would be smarter to invest in helping low-yield farmers close their yield gaps. What we do today is more like providing the “A” student with a tutor instead of the “C” student who, with help, would likely achieve significantly greater academic improvement than the A student would. Foley’s research team sees opportunity for higher potential yields in regions across Africa, Central America and eastern Europe by planting with better seeds, applying fertilizer more effectively and irrigating more efficiently. Some of these methods would require educating farmers on best practices for their regions, but once adapted, would gain immediate returns.
  3. Use resources more efficiently. For example, using a drip-irrigation method that hydrates plants near their roots, rather than spraying droplets in the air, would significantly curb water waste. Similarly, some areas of the world are more nutrient deficient than others, and would need more fertilizer accordingly. However, most farmers either use too much fertilizer, leading to pollution, or too little, leading to poor crops. “Almost no one uses fertilizers ‘just right’,” says Foley. Actions that would fix this excess of resource use are policy and economic incentives that would reward farmers for watershed stewardship, improved manure management, environmental protection, and nutrient recycling programs.
  4. Shift diets away from meat. This one has been covered over and over. Foley writes that “globally, humans could net up to three quadrillion additional calories every year… by switching to all-plant diets.” Even small shifts in diet – toward poultry and away from beef, or adopting Meatless Mondays, for example – would make significant differences.
  5. Reduce food waste. Roughly 30 percent of food produced worldwide is lost to pests and spoilage, or is simply discarded. In wealthy countries, much of this waste takes place on the consumer end – in restaurants and in the backs of our refrigerators (yes, I’m guilty, too.) Smaller portion sizes could help in this respect – less food cooked and wasted. (The added bonus would be our reduced waistlines.) In poorer countries, losses take place at the producer end – more failed crops, food ruined by pests, or simply poor infrastructure that fails to deliver food before spoilage. Improved storage, refrigeration and distribution would serve to cut waste.

Foley recommends these strategies not as a silver bullet, but “silver buckshot”. I agree with him in that there is no one method that will save our planet and ourselves. But it’s a big job ahead of us, and we need to begin right away if we are to reach our goals before 2050.

Am I optimistic that we could make significant strides toward greater sustainability and production? Yes. Foley’s research gives me hope that it is possible. Whether it’s probable, however, I’m not sure. The changes Foley suggests are practical and concrete, but underlying them are assumptions of a wider cultural shift in favor of sustainability – and culture is generally slow to change unless provoked by major catastrophic events.

I don’t really believe that we will win the Green Food Revolution on the basis of a green revolution; we need to bring the worldwide conversation to a point where economics and social strategy can meet. “Saving the Planet,” for most people, isn’t incentive enough to make any changes beyond recycling, or carrying cloth shopping bags. What we need is government action. Environmental policy. Economic incentives for farmers to do better.

But in the end, it isn’t even really about saving the planet – it’s about saving ourselves. It won’t be easy. We’ll either choose to start now – or we’ll be forced to. I’m afraid that if we wait for the latter, it will be too late.

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