Can the World Feed Itself Without Destroying Itself?

14 Oct, 2011

Recent global population growth estimates (10 billion by 2100, anyone?) plus slowing annual increases in agricultural yields have a lot of analysts worried that many of those new people will suffer from chronic hunger—and that much of the land that hasn’t been converted to agriculture will be plowed under to grow crops.

But a new study in the journal Nature argues that we can feed the world’s growing population without destroying the planet… if we make major adjustments now in agricultural and consumption practices and patterns. (Hey, if it were easy, we’d already be there, right?)

Based on new data about the Earth’s agricultural lands and crop yields, the study offers some core strategies to meet future food production needs and environmental challenges. Those strategies include:

  • Stop farming in places like tropical rainforests, which have high ecological value and low food output;
  • Improve crop yields in regions of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe where farmland isn’t meeting its potential;
  • Change farming practices to better manage water, nutrients and chemicals;
  • Shift diets away from meat; and
  • Stop wasting food (up to 1/3 of all food grown is wasted either in production, transport or after purchase).

Taken together, these strategies could lead to 100-180% more food available for consumption and sustain the lakes, rivers, forests and soil that food production depends on.

I talked with Jon Foley—lead author of the study and director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute for the Environment, as well as a member of The Nature Conservancy’s Science Council advisory board—to find out what it would take to make these recommendations a reality.


Q: Your study’s findings are very promising. But the money question is—how do we do this? Roughly 1 billion people don’t have enough food right now, so it’s clearly a difficult challenge.

JON FOLEY: In this paper we’re looking at, “What does the science say?” A lot of people talk about the issue of food, but don’t have much data or science to back up the claims. So we wanted to find out which ideas can actually solve the problem.

We found that there is no silver bullet—we need to incorporate the best of what we know now into solving the world’s food problems and protecting our natural resources.

Can we do it? We have to—it’s absolutely necessary. It’s up to us to decide what’s politically feasible. We can change how we govern, tax, ship, produce, etc. What we can’t change are the laws of physics.

The problem of feeding the world and not wrecking the planet is a huge challenge and it’s going to shape a lot of the 21st century. Solving it will require huge cooperation, innovation and hard work. What our study does is lay out the data.

Q: One focus of the article is how much land is given over to meat and dairy production, especially for growing fodder crops for these animals. Are you recommending that everyone should be vegetarian?

JON FOLEY: No, we’re not saying that—and that’s not realistic. People are going to eat meat. But it matters how meat is produced.

35% of our agricultural lands go to producing animal feed, and cattle and dairy farming take up 3.38 billion hectares. Grain-fed beef is a huge drain on the planet—it takes 30 kilos of grain to produce 1 kilo of boneless beef. It’s just not efficient. We’re better off producing grass-fed beef or more chicken and pork, which requires far less grain feed. And we’re clearing rainforests to produce this meat! It’s not necessary.

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