The first-ever SxSW Eco is taking place this week in Austin, Texas. It’s a three-day event that brings together sustainable companies, scientists, politicians, media and citizens that are concerned about the environment and passionate about finding solutions to tomorrow’s problems today. Care2 will be posting highlights from the conference all week, so stay tuned!
What are the biggest challenges facing the world today?
According to Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, the need to feed a planet that will soon be home to 7 billion people trumps them all.
In his Tuesday afternoon session at SxSW Eco, Foley outlined three major agricultural challenges that need to be addressed, all at the same time, if we’re going to find a way to feed everyone in the years ahead.
1. Feeding Current Demands: There are over 1 billion people that go to bed hungry every night. Meanwhile there are over 1 billion seriously obese people in the world.
2. Meeting Future Demands: By 2050 there will be around 9 billion people on the planet, and we’ll need to double our food supply in order to feed them. Meanwhile, diets for many in the world are getting wealthier (more dairy and meat) while others struggle just to fill their bellies.
3. Making Agriculture Truly Sustainable: Agriculture is the single most significant thing we do to this planet. Combined, agriculture takes up 40 percent of all habitable land on the planet, 70 percent of all water resources, and 35 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions as a result of deforestation, methane release from cattle, and nitrous oxide emissions from chemical fertilizers.
There’s no denying that these problems are large, and intertwined in the most complicated of ways. In order to solve them as soon as possible, Foley says all members of the agricultural discussion (organic farmers, biotechnology companies, large food manufacturers) need to combine their best ideas and work together for the best of society.
Since this is exactly the type of collaboration studied at the University of Minnesota, Foley also offered a plan for moving forward:
1. Slow Agricultural Expansion: The answer is not to eliminate our last remaining forests so we can grow more. Most of the land cleared in the rainforest isn’t even used to grow food for humans anyway.
2. Close “Yield Gaps”: Biotech companies are in the business of improving productivity of the best and most well-funded farms. Foley suggests that instead we focus on the least productive farms, like those in Eastern Europe, South America, and Africa, and teach them how to get more from the land they’re already cultivating in a sustainable manner.
3. Improve Current Resource Use: Irrigation is a huge draw on our global water supply. In some areas, like the midwestern United States, this is done fairly efficiently. But in other countries, like India, irrigation is very inefficient, and much of the water used fails to translate into mouths fed.
4. Close the Diet Gap: Foley suggests that it’s time to stop using most of our crops for cattle feed and biofuels, and start using them to produce edible crops for humans.
5. Eliminate Food Waste: Teaching people to choose, grow, prepare, and properly preserve whole foods will eliminate the over 30 percent of edible food that ends up in the landfill every year.
What are your sustainable ideas for feeding a hungry planet? Share them in a comment!