Questions of how we’ll feed the world’s increasingly voracious population and sustain the planet’s increasingly fragile ecology haunt me every time I buy corn-fed ethanol gas and consume corn-fed prime rib. Recommendations for feeding the world through 2050 are reasonably optimistic and seem reasonably practical.
The recommendations come from a study whose lead author is Jon Foley, Director at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of the Environment. He and 19 international researchers agreed on five ways to double the world’s food production and sustain the planet’s ecosystems. Foley summarized the report in Nature (10/11) and Scientific American (11/11) and presented at the 2012 Aspen Institute in Colorado. Invited panelists described necessary changes in government policies and consumer awareness.
Panelists emphasized agriculture needs to be a higher political, economic and scientific priority. Agricultural research funds are drying up. Hunger creates unstable politics and dismal economies, yet US farm-aid’s share of foreign aid to Africa and South America has declined.
These are the five recommendations to increase food calories per acre of cropland.
Use current croplands for food. We should reduce losing highly productive cropland by urbanization, degradation, abandonment and corn biofuels. Research should be dedicated to finding better biofuels crops such as switchgrass grown on marginal agricultural land. Incentives for farmers could reduce deforestation of lands that absorb polluting carbons to create croplands that produce cattle feed for South American beef with incentives for farmers.
Increase yields of the least productive croplands. The greatest potential to increase food is better agricultural practices to improve lands in Africa, Central America and eastern Europe. Gains could come from existing, alternative seeds and improved fertilizer and irrigation practices. Nigerian farmers independently restored large tracts of barren land in Africa’s Sahel desert by planting trees that hold water followed by planting crops among the trees.
Increase the amount of calories grown per unit of water, fertilizer and energy. Water evaporation can be reduced through drip irrigation, covering soil with mulch and reducing evaporation in canals and reservoirs. Fertilizer over-use or under-use could be avoided to could reduce pollution in watersheds and increase yields through tillage, manure storage, recycling, and precise applications.
Shift diets away from meat. This shift, recommended by two vegans in my family, would convert croplands producing animal food to people food, potentially adding half the calories needed to feed all people on the planet. Eliminating beef is unrealistic given that people with rising incomes are discovering how tasty and energizing it is, but replacing some beef with more poultry, pork, pasture-fed beef, grains and fish would improve yields significantly.
Reduce Food Waste. The report estimates 30 percent of global food production is tossed out, lost, spoiled or eaten by pests. In our country most food waste comes from consumers like me who leave food on plates and toss out spoilage in our refrigerator. In poorer nations most food waste occurs at food sources with failed crops, pest consumption and inability to deliver to markets.
Foley wrote, “Together the steps could increase the world’s food availability by 100 to 180 percent, while significantly lowering greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity losses, water use and water pollution.”
What can citizens do beyond eating less meat and reducing spoilage?
- Support agriculture research compared to military research.
- Support aid and voluntary services that improve food capacity in underdeveloped countries.
- Use apps on smartphones to choose foods more wisely and forward information on effective agriculture policies and practices.
I downloaded two free apps. Seafoodwatch, by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, recommends salmon and cod brands caught by sustainable fishing practices. Fooducate uses the smartphone camera to scan product codes and reveal contents in the product.
The comforting message is practical ways exist to feed the world’s growing population until 2050 without depending on inventive technology. The urgent message is we need to make sustainable agricultural policies a priority for our governments and ourselves.