The world’s population will zoom past 7 billion sometime this month. By 2050, that number will grow to 9 billion people.
We’re already consuming far more natural resources than a single Earth can produce, so it’s hard to imagine that the commercial food system will be able to sustain 2 billion more people without significant changes. Transforming the broken agricultural machine into a globally sustainable agricultural system that protects the environment needs to happen quickly, and we have to get it right the first time.
Finding a practical solution to the world’s food supply problem is the focus of the cover story of this month’s Nature magazine, “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet.”
In the article, an international team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment report it is indeed possible to feed the 9-billion-plus people anticipated to live on this planet in 2050 without destroying Earth’s life support systems.
“For the first time, we have shown that it is possible to both feed a hungry world and protect a threatened planet,” said lead author Jonathan Foley, head of the UM’s Institute on the Environment. “It will take serious work. But we can do it.”
Combining new data gathered from satellite imagery and crop records, the team documented changes in agricultural lands and their yields over the past 40 years and used their findings to address the triple-threat of agriculture as usual: worldwide instability from an unbalanced access to food; agriculture’s massive impact on soil, water, and air quality; and skyrocketing food demand.
They found that “farm and ranch lands cover nearly 40 percent of Earth’s land area—the largest use of land on the planet. Though modern agriculture has boosted crops yields, increases between 1985 and 2005 were less than half what is commonly reported and are slowing. And because one-third of crops are used for livestock feed, biofuels and other nonfood products, the number of hunger-abating calories produced per cultivated acre is far lower than it could be—even (perhaps particularly) in fields with high-yielding, but animal-feeding, crops.”
According to the study, the recipe for addressing these threats demands the following ingredients:
- Halting farmland expansion in the tropics
- Closing yield gaps on underperforming lands
- Using agricultural inputs more strategically
- Shifting diets and reducing food waste
“What’s new and exciting here is that we considered solutions to both 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 this problem, to demonstrate that these solutions could actually work—showing where, when and how they could be most effective. No one has done this before.”
Suggested solutions include:
- 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 agriculture, organic agriculture, industrial farming, small local production, biotechnology and more to create a sustainably intensified global food system.
Read the full article online at Nature. And if you’ve got the time, watch Foley’s TEDx presentation “The Other Inconvenient Truth: How Agriculture is Changing the Face of Our Planet” below.
Image Credit: Flickr – cpwf_bfp