The challenge of feeding an expected world population of more than nine billion in 2050 — at least two billion more than today — has attracted considerable attention, resulting in a wide range of responses.
A year and a half ago, the expectation was that the world’s agricultural production would have to increase by 70 per cent over the following 38 years. In a column then, we pointed out that by using conventional technology we were able to move from feeding a world population of four billion in 1974 to feeding seven billion — an increase of 75 per cent over a 38-year period. The expected population increase between 2012 and 2050 was 28 per cent.
But the challenge is not simply one of meeting the needs of more than two billion additional people — plus the 850-plus million who currently are unable to meet their nutritional needs. With rising incomes in the major developing countries, the demand for animal-based protein also increases the need for the production of grains and oilseeds. Taken together, it is now expected that crop production will need to double by 2050.
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In the May 2014 issue of National Geographic, in an article titled A Five Step Plan to Feed the World, Jonathan Foley argues, “It doesn’t have to be industrial farms versus small, organic ones. There’s another way.”
Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Chicago, begins by identifying the environmental problems created by current agricultural practices: release of methane from “cattle and rice fields, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of forests to grow crops or raise livestock.” He also says that agriculture is both a big consumer and polluter of water and it “accelerates the loss of biodiversity.” He makes it clear agriculture needs to both reduce its negative environmental impact and increase its effective agricultural output if it is to feed the 2050 population in a more sustainable way.
He also identifies the all-too-familiar battle between those who believe that conventional agriculture is the only way to meet the coming challenge and “the proponents of local and organic farms.” He argues elements of both arguments are part of the solution.
He and a team of scientists analyzed reams of data on agriculture and the environment and proposed five steps that could solve the world’s food dilemma.
The first step is to “freeze agriculture’s footprint.” In the past, agriculture responded to the need for increased production by, in part, converting forests and grasslands to farm fields and pastures for livestock production. This expansion must stop, he argues.
Instead, and this is his second step, we need to “grow more on [the] farms we’ve got.” He sees the major gains coming from farmland “where there are ‘yield gaps’ between current production levels and those possible with improved farming practices.” Here he argues that both high-tech and organic techniques can contribute to increasing yields. He notes that “only 55 per cent of food-crop calories directly nourish people. Meat, dairy, and eggs from animals raised on feed supply another four per cent.”
“Use resources more efficiently” is Foley’s third step. He notes the positive changes conventional agriculture has made in this direction with the targeted use of fertilizers and pesticides through the use of GPS and soil testing. He also notes the benefits organics can bring “by incorporating cover crops, mulches, and compost to improve soil quality, conserve water, and build up nutrients.”
Foley argues that “advances in both conventional and organic farming can give us more ‘crop per drop’ from our water and nutrients.”
The fourth step, “shift diets,” is in part targeted at consumers in the developed countries. In a call to change that certainly will draw the ire of the producers of animal protein, particularly beef, Foley calls for the adoption of a less meat-intensive diet. And then by calling for a reduction in the use of food crops and land for biofuels, he will incur the wrath of crop farmers.
Fifth, Foley argues for reducing waste — both in harvest and storage techniques in the developing world, as well as waste that occurs in homes, restaurants, or supermarkets in the developed world.
He points out that “of all of the options for boosting food availability, tackling waste would be one of the most effective.”
“Taken together, these five steps could more than double the world’s food supplies and dramatically cut the environmental impact of agriculture worldwide. But it won’t be easy. These solutions require a big shift in thinking. For most of our history we have been blinded by the overzealous imperative of more, more, more in agriculture — clearing more land, growing more crops, using more resources. We need to find a balance between producing more food and sustaining the planet for future generations,” Foley writes.