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Change Agent

The world can feed itself without ruining the planet, study says

Author Jon Foley says feeding a growing world presents a huge challenge. But employing many strategies simultaneously can meet the problem.

By Darci PalmquistCool Green Science / October 14, 2011

A farmer loads potatoes on a truck on a farmland in Hui-Tu Autonomous County of Datong, northwest China's Qinghai Province.

Zhang Hongxiang/Xinhua/Photoshot/Newscom

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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.

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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 percent 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.

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.

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