What is in this article?:
- Hungry planet: Can the masses be fed?
- Feeding plan
- Researchers claim agriculture can feed an exploding world population — if sustainable food production is pursued on five key fronts: halting farmland expansion in the tropics, closing yield gaps on underperforming lands, using agricultural inputs more strategically, shifting diets and reducing food waste.
Based on their data, the researchers proposed a five-point plan for feeding the world while protecting the planet:
• Halt farmland expansion. Reduction of land clearing for agriculture, particularly in tropical rainforests, achieved using incentives such as payment for ecosystem services, certification and ecotourism. These incentives can yield huge environmental benefits without dramatically cutting into agricultural production or economic well-being.
• Close yield gaps. Many parts of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe have substantial “yield gaps”— where farmland is not living up to its potential for producing crops. Closing these gaps through improved use of existing crop varieties, better management and improved genetics could increase current food production nearly 60 percent.
• Use inputs more strategically. Current use of water, nutrients and agriculture chemicals suffer from what the research team calls “Goldilocks’ Problem”: too much in some places, too little in others, rarely just right. Strategic reallocation could substantially boost the benefit we get from precious inputs.
• Shift diets. Growing animal feed or biofuels on top croplands, no matter how efficiently, is a drain on human food supply. Dedicating croplands to direct human food production could boost calories produced per person by nearly 50 percent. Even shifting non-food uses such as animal feed or biofuel production away from prime cropland could make a big difference.
• Reduce waste. One-third of the food farms produce ends up discarded, spoiled or eaten by pests. Eliminating waste in the path from farm to mouth could boost food available for consumption another 50 percent.
“Many scholars and thinkers have proposed solutions to global food and environmental problems. But they were often fragmented, only looking at one aspect of the problem at one time. I always wondered whether these proposed solutions were enough to solve the problem,” said Navin Ramankutty, associate professor of geography at McGill University and one of the team’s leaders.
“What’s new and exciting here is that we considered solutions to feeding our growing world and solving the global environmental crisis of agriculture at the same time,” Foley said. “We focused the world’s best scientific data and models on this problem, showing where, when and how they could be most effective. No one has done this before.”
To move from today’s insufficient food system to one that can, and does, feed us all without compromising the environment, the research team also recommends:
• Focus on improving agricultural systems where major improvements in food production or environmental protection come with the least expense and effort.
• Pursue approaches that are resilient — that can adapt to the unexpected circumstances that undoubtedly will arise along the way.
• Develop better tools for evaluating costs and benefits of alternatives, so the choices we make clearly move us toward better food security and environmental sustainability.
• Favor the outcome, not the approach. Take the best of conventional and organic agriculture, industrial farming, local production, biotechnology and more to create a sustainably intensified global food system.
Foley says, “Food and nutrition for 9 billion people without compromising the global environment will be one of the greatest challenges our civilization has ever faced. It will require the imagination, determination and hard work of countless people from all over the world, embarked on one of the most important causes in history. So let’s work together to make it happen. There is no time to lose.