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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.

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One focus of the article is how much land is given over to meat and dairy production, especially for growing fodder crops for these animals. Are you recommending that everyone should be vegetarian?

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No, we’re not saying that – and that’s not realistic. People are going to eat meat. But it matters how meat is produced.

Thirty-five percent of our agricultural lands go to producing animal feed, and cattle and dairy farming take up 3.38 billion hectares. Grain-fed beef is a huge drain on the planet – it takes 30 kilos of grain to produce 1 kilo of boneless beef. It’s just not efficient. We’re better off producing grass-fed beef or more chicken and pork, which requires far less grain feed. And we’re clearing rainforests to produce this meat! It’s not necessary.

Speaking of rainforests, agriculture in tropical areas is increasing rapidly, yet your study says we could stop this growth altogether with little to no loss in food production. Can you explain that?

We found that agriculture in tropical areas yields limited food calories – most of it is going to crops like sugarcane, palm oil, and soybeans for animal feed or biofuel. Ceasing agricultural expansion into the tropics would have an impact on global food crops, but it would be small and we could offset those losses elsewhere.

It’s about the trade-offs. We lose rainforests, with huge impacts to climate change, but we don’t feed many people. Instead, we’re better off improving production in places where we currently farm than clearing more rainforests.

Improving crop production and yields aren’t new ideas. What makes your approach different?

Yes, these things are already happening. But our study looks at it from a new perspective. Instead of trying to get high-performing farmlands to perform even better, we found that improving the lower-performing farmlands could dramatically increase the amount of food produced.

For instance, if we close the “yield gaps” in underperforming regions of Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe, food production could be increased by 60 percent. Closing “yield gaps” means helping poor farming regions meet their potential with basic improvements, like better use of crop varieties, irrigation, and fertilizer – giving them access to these things, and helping them manage their land better.

Our idea is focus on lifting the people near the bottom of the floor up closer to the ceiling, rather than lifting the ceiling higher. We need to change our approach to agriculture. Instead of sitting back and waiting for famine to strike, let’s ask: How can we prevent the next big famine?

What about organic farming—does it have a role to play in solving the global food problem?

Organics make up less than 1 percent of the world’s food supply right now. So, organic broccoli is not going to solve the problem of feeding the world and saving the planet’s natural resources.

But our current farming practices use a lot of water and chemicals. We need to ask, how can we improve that? Our research found that nearly half the fertilizer applied runs off rather than nourishes crops – and some places, like China and the central United States, could substantially reduce fertilizer use with little to no impact on food production.

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