How to Feed 7 Billion of Us Without Ruining the Planet

by Tom Laskawy, in a Grist cross-post

Now that we’re surrounded by 7 billion of our closest friends, it’s probably a good time to talk about how we’re going to feed them. The government, along with corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, and others who are part of our current industrial agriculture system, will tell you that feeding the world is all about more. More yield from crops, more chemicals, more fertilizer, more genetically engineered seeds. More, more, more!

Of course, it’s easy to say that when you’re willing, as they are, to ignore the health effects, climate and environmental impacts, resource constraints, and every other real world consequence of large-scale industrial agriculture.

Our ability to feed this expanding population (let alone reduce world hunger) is generally discussed in terms of bushels of grain or total calories produced. It’s as if other aspects of the food production system — from agriculture’s carbon footprint, to the amount of crops now used for biofuels and animal feed, to the availability and price of oil and other depleted resources like phosphorus, a key fertilizer — are somehow irrelevant.

So it’s nice to see an article in the preeminent science journal Nature that tries to look at the big picture of world agriculture, warts and all.

The report was written by a team of international scientists led by Dr. Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of the Environment, and the goal was to address how our current food system is failing to feed the world. And yes, that was “is failing” –not “might fail in the future.” After all, any system that leaves nearly 15 percent of the world’s population — and 50 million residents of the world’s richest country — hungry while wasting an astounding amount of food can’t possibly be considered a success.

On the bright side, Foley’s team of researchers concluded that we can indeed produce enough food and do so in a way that both minimizes environmental and climate damage while treating water as the precious resource it is. We will, however, have to make a few adjustments to our approach to agriculture. The to-do list is surprisingly short:

  • Close agricultural “yield gaps” — the difference between the most and least productive regions — while minimizing farming’s environmental footprint
  • Stop agricultural expansion into sensitive areas, such as rainforests
  • Stop wasting so much food
  • Eat less meat and put less food (i.e. ethanol) into our gas tanks.

Though few, the changes called for won’t be easy to enact. According to the researchers’ analysis, however, these are the only real options if we are to produce food for all 7 billion of us without destroying the planet in the process.

The report also points out that conventional attempts to expand food production, such as the recent increase in farmland, do more harm than good. Much of that new farmland is, for the most part, former tropical rainforest — and it turns out converted rainforest land is neither particularly productive as farmland nor climate smart, since creating it releases huge amounts of carbon sequestered in trees. The study provides evidence that we’re better off letting the rainforest sequester carbon than burning and bulldozing it to grow grains or sugarcane (which mostly end up as biofuel rather than human food).

The report adds that the relentless focus on exporting Western-style industrial agriculture is a dead-end. This is true for many reasons, but one is that our system is incredible resource inefficient. While much of the world could benefit from increased fertility, the overuse of fertilizer — responsible for the ocean “dead zones” throughout the world — is caused by the agriculture practiced the U.S., Western Europe, Northern India, and China. As the study notes, “only 10 percent of the world’s croplands account for 32 percent of the global nitrogen surplus and 40 percent of the phosphorus surplus.” According to Foley and his team:

… conventional approaches to intensive agriculture, especially the unbridled use of irrigation and fertilizers, have been major causes of environmental degradation. Closing yield gaps without environmental degradation will require new approaches, including reforming conventional agriculture and adopting lessons from organic systems and precision agriculture.

That’s right, they used the “O” word. In fact, these scientists concluded that if we’re to grow more with fewer resources and a smaller environmental and carbon footprint, we’ll have to look not to high-tech solutions like genetic engineering but rather to:

agroecological innovations in crop and soil management [which] … show great promise for improving the resource efficiency of agriculture, maintaining the benefits of intensive agriculture while greatly reducing harm to the environment.

Agroecology is a broad term, but generally involves a balanced approach to agriculture that takes account of natural systems when choosing what to grow and how to grow it. While it’s the form of food production rarely discussed at USDA and in the U.S. generally, agroecological principles have been endorsed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as well as by the U.N.’s Right to Food program as the best way forward. They’ve also been explored in depth in a report produced by hundreds of scientists for the World Bank.

The Nature study also noted that worldwide, only 62 percent of our crops go towards food we actually eat. A third goes to livestock and around 3 percent goes to biofuel, fiber, or seed production. But those numbers vary greatly by region. The scientists produced a “heat map” that looks at what percentage of a region’s crop production is fed to humans vs. animals and fuel tanks. Red indicates cropland totally dedicated to food while blue indicates cropland used to grow fuel, fiber, or other industrial products.

Notice that cold blue swath that covers the American Midwest? The same area touted as the key to America’s “feeding the world”? Well, the map shows that the vast majority of food grown there is not destined for people’s stomachs. That’s something that will need to change if we are to have any hope of making food available to those who need it.

With the tools currently at our disposal, we can reduce carbon emissions to address climate change; we can create jobs to address economic inequality; and, yes, we can “feed the world,” though the better term is “feed ourselves.” What Foley and his team are really telling us is that, as with the other challenges we face, the main obstacles are political.

The fact is that the people and corporations who run things at the moment don’t want to change. And certainly not in the direction this report recommends. That’s a shame, because it’s a lot easier to change by choice than in a time of crisis. But unless we find ways to adopt the principles that scientists like Foley and his team are describing soon, we’re likely to have change forced upon us. And I’m guessing we’ll like the results a whole lot less.

This piece was originally published at Grist. A 17-year veteran of both traditional and online media, Tom Laskawy is a Contributing Writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy.
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12 Responses to How to Feed 7 Billion of Us Without Ruining the Planet

  1. OAW says:

    Gaia is implementing the solution.
    And it does not support 7 billion men.

  2. Tom Lenz says:

    We have already ruined the planet just getting to 7 billion!

  3. Joan Savage says:

    The “yield gaps” category is intriguing.

    With climate instability, yield gaps are going to be unavoidable. I am guessing that the suggestion to work on reducing yield gaps may refer to more controllable decisions like adding trace minerals to soil or better weather forecasting for planting and harvest. It could also include increasing crop diversity to spread the risks.

    To be sure, a cut back on CO2 in hopes of reducing climate instability, might reduce unpredictability of crop yields.

  4. M Tucker says:

    You should read the report. As Dr Foley (by the way he is a favorite of Andy Revkin) laid out the argument for crop yield, we could try to improve the yield of the most productive farmlands (like the US and Western Europe) or we can improve the yield of the least productive farmlands (like Africa and Eastern Europe). That is where the “yield-gap” resides. Sure, sure he says that organic needs to be part of the mix but guess what the heavy hitter solutions are? Yep, better seeds (GM) and fertilizer. Not sure about Eastern Europe but the biggest reason most of Africa still uses the old seeds and very little fertilizer is because of the huge expense of switching to western style agriculture. Dr Foley lays out the broad picture without actually describing how Africa farmers will improve yield with better seeds and fertilizer without relying on the big western style machinery that the US and Western Europe rely on to achieve their mighty yields. He does make a very good case for much more efficient use of fertilizer in the US, Western Europe, India (some parts), and China but it is important to remember that Dr Foley also maintains that his to-do list will also achieve the necessary reduction in GHG in order to stave off crop damaging warming, drought, and floods. Yeah, that to-do list, the one without emissions targets, the one without a price on carbon…did I mention that Andy Revkin really likes what Dr Foley has to say?

  5. An upcoming solution that I hope you discuss in the future is vertical farming. It is sustainable, ideal for urban settings and in a controlled environment there isn’t an issue with climate change-induced natural disasters. You can also get multiple yields aver the course of a year.

  6. Joe Romm says:

    Message delivered.

  7. David Miller says:

    Agriculture is potentially the biggest win-win proposition we have in the fight against both global warming and hunger.

    Converting crop wastes to biochar – a potentially net energy producer – and applying to the fields increases growth and nutritional value of plants, decreases water, fertilizer, and pesticide requirements, and sequesters carbon for thousands of years.

    It’s true that the charred crop wastes could not also be used to increase soil organic matter. It should, instead, be replaced by green manure crops so that no ground is ever left bare, to be eroded by wind and water.

    Better health and more food for people, carbon locked up, decreased chemical and energy requirements. Who, besides the agribusiness companies could be against it?

  8. J4zonian says:

    It’s great to see people at the top levels of influence finally showing sense. I’d add to the list of changes:

    Local organic permaculture, including especially the use of perennials, water-saving landforms (swales, for example) and graywater systems, and food forests.

  9. Wes Rolley says:

    The real problem is not the question of how to feed 7 billion people now, but rather how to feed 9 billion in 2050. The suggestions in this piece are just a starting point.

    Only a few countries (possibly Japan, Korea, Russia) will lose population by then. The rest will more than make up for it.

  10. publius2012 says:

    “the main obstacles are political.”

    Statements like this imply a false balance of nature. The ecological world that sustains us is not a stable system and we are disturbing it substantially. The main obstacle is our lack of understanding of sudden threshold changes that we have already passed, and the ecological collapse that we are experiencing. Thinking that we can feed a growing population is foolish and unrealistic, even if we had a competent and legitimate and effective political system.