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Five ways to feed billions without trashing the planet

 Soy fields meet Amazon rainforest in Brazil. A new study argues that the destruction of rainforests for agriculture must stop. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler .
Soy fields meet Amazon rainforest in Brazil. A new study argues that the destruction of rainforests for agriculture must stop. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

At the end of this month the UN predicts global population will hit 7 billion people, having doubled from 3.5 billion in less than 50 years. Yet even as the Earth hits this new milestone, one billion people do not have enough food; meanwhile the rapid expansion of agriculture is one of the leading causes of global environmental degradation, including greenhouse gas emissions, destruction of forests, marine pollution, mass extinction, water scarcity, and soil degradation. So, how do we feed the human population—which continues to rise and is expected to hit nine billion by 2050—while preserving the multitude of ecosystem services that support global food production? A new study in Nature proposes a five-point plan to this dilemma.

“Lots of other scholars and thinkers have proposed solutions to global food and environmental problems. But they were often fragmented, only looking at one aspect of the problem at one time. And they often lacked the specifics and numbers to back them up,” says Navin Ramankutt, a co-author of the study from McGill University. “This is the first time that such a wide range of data has been brought together under one common framework, and it has allowed us to see some clear patterns. This makes it easier to develop some concrete solutions for the problems facing us.”

Number one: stop the destruction of ecosystems for agricultural expansion, especially rainforests. Tropical forests harbor an estimated half the species on Earth and provide vital services from freshwater to carbon sequestration. The study argues that it is possible to preserve remaining ecosystems, including forests and grasslands, without diminishing agricultural production.

Next, the authors—from as far afield as Canada, US, Sweden, and Germany—suggest focusing on upping agricultural yields by improving crop varieties, genetics (as in Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs), and overall better management of current farmland. Improving agricultural yields on existing land could increase production by 60 percent, they say.

Third, more equitable distribution of agriculture supplements, such as water, fertilizer and agricultural chemicals. In other words, using the right amount for each agricultural region. Currently some regions suffer from too much agricultural supplements while other have too little.

Prime crop land should not be used to grow animal feed or biofuels, the authors further argue. Currently a third of the world’s arable land is used to grow livestock feed, but focusing instead on crops grown for direct human consumption would up the calories produced per person by almost 50 percent. Eventually this will require a global shift in diet towards less meat. In addition, biofuels are taking prime cropland away from feeding people.

Finally, the study argues that food waste must be tackled, since a third of all food produced globally is either throw-away, spoiled, or consumed by pests. Dealing with waste would boost food availability by 50 percent without expanding cropland.

The researchers predict these five changes would allow farmers to double food production worldwide, while preserving the environment that ultimately supports agricultural production.

“For the first time, we have shown that it is possible to both feed a hungry world and protect a threatened planet,” lead author Jonathan Foley, head of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, said. “It will take serious work. But we can do it.”

However, other researchers have argued that the only way to feed the planet going forward and lessen environmental impact is to focus on small-scale agriculture and organic farming, which deems chemicals, such pesticides and herbicides, GMO foods, and chemical fertilizers, anathema.

CITATION: Jonathan A. Foley,
Navin Ramankutty,
Kate A. Brauman,
Emily S. Cassidy,
James S. Gerber,
Matt Johnston,
Nathaniel D. Mueller,
Christine O’Connell,
Deepak K. Ray,
Paul C. West,
Christian Balzer,
Elena M. Bennett,
Stephen R. Carpenter,
Jason Hill,
Chad Monfreda,
Stephen Polasky,
Johan Rockström,
John Sheehan,
Stefan Siebert,
David Tilman,
and David P. M. Zaks. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature (2011). doi:10.1038/nature10452.

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