How to feed the world
With the Earth poised for a population spurt, a Debate ensues over the future of farming.
After more than 20 years of weeding his rice paddies by hand, Takao Furuno of Japan of wondered if organic farming was worth the trouble. Then something changed his life.Skip to next paragraph
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The wild fowl, floating in his fields, inspired him to try an old Japanese technique of raising ducklings alongside the rice. The results surprised him. The birds ate the weeds and pests he'd worked so hard to eliminate. And their droppings nourished the rice, raising yields. Mr. Furuno, author of "The Power of Duck," has since started rotating crops and has added fish to flooded fields. His system is spreading to other Asian producers.
Furuno's ways are a prime example, observers say, of what could be the future of agriculture.
But it's only one of several visions. At the other extreme, in hungry Kenya researcher Florence Wambugu is using biotechnology to create sweet potatoes that resist pests.
The genetically manipulated sweet potatoes boast twice the yield and retain more of the nutrition than their conventional cousins. By taking this route, other observers say, feeding the world will require that fewer of the earth's forests be hewn for farming.
Ever since the world embarked on its biggest population boom three centuries ago, international agriculture has accomplished an amazing feat. It has managed not only to keep up with but to exceed the demographic increase. The result: A greater share of people eat better than at any time in history and, although hunger persists, its grip on the world is loosening.
Now, agriculture faces one final demographic spurt - a nearly 50 percent increase in the world's population before it levels off at around 9 billion people in 2050. And doubts are creeping in about whether the industry has the wherewithal to work its magic one more time.
"We feed ourselves largely on those earlier gains, which we call the Green Revolution," writes Richard Manning, author of "Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution." "Now we are in need of another such leap, but we lack the technology to effect it."
"We have to come to terms with our life-styles," adds Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames. "We have to bring our species in balance with the rest of the species. I'm not very sanguine about that because if you look at the technologies that we've developed in the past, they always have had some ecological fallout."
Starting in the 1700s, Europe fed its burgeoning population by expanding agricultural production, especially in its colonies. That was acceptable when the world retained many of its forests. Now that land under cultivation represents nearly a third of the earth's land surface, further expansion looks environmentally suspect. So does today's conventional farming.
But alternatives have their own problems. Organic agriculture can't produce enough food to feed today's world. And biotechnology is running into widespread skepticism.
If it weren't for the environmental questions, such doubts about future food production might seem laughable. After all, the record of the past 40 years looks stellar. Average cereal yields have more than doubled, according to a University of Essex study. The world's farmers produce 25 percent more food per person, even though population totals have nearly doubled. And the price of food has fallen 40 percent (adjusted for inflation), which has alleviated hunger and caused some observers to forecast that the world could conquer malnutrition in this century.
The problem with this record lies with its effects outside agriculture. The fertilizers and pesticides of conventional (or high-input) agriculture foul drinking water, increase insects' resistance to pesticides, and choke irrigated soils with salt. Nearly 4 million acres of irrigated land are lost each year to this salinization, costing some $11 billion in reduced productivity annually, according to a satellite mapping project by the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank based in Washington, D.C. The same report found that more than 40 percent of the world's agricultural land exhibits moderately degraded soils.