Dan Clark via NPR
Can we feed the world without destroying the environment?
It’s a good question, because agriculture is probably the single most destructive thing that humans do to the earth.
Consider: Cropland and pasture now cover 40 percent of our planet’s land surface; farming consumes nearly three-quarters of all the water that humans use for any purpose; farming accounts for a third of all the emissions of greenhouse gases that humans release into the environment. (Those greenhouse emission come from clearing forests or grassland for crops, the emissions of methane from rice paddies, and the conversion of nitrogen fertilizer into nitrous oxide — a powerful greenhouse gas.)
That’s bad enough, but Jonathan Foley from the University of Minnesota, who led this new analysis, says it’s likely to get worse. Demand for food is expected to double over the next forty years. Are we truly, to quote environmentalist Bill McKibben, facing the “end of nature”?
According to the new study, not necessarily. But avoiding mass deforestation and food scarcity is going to take some very big changes. Briefly: Big investments in food production in places (think Ukraine and Uganda) where current farm land isn’t producing as much food as it could; much more efficient use of water and fertilizer; less wasted food; and (controversy alert!) eating less meat. About 40 percent of the planet’s crops, according to this study, currently are fed to animals.
Unfortunately, the paper does not really explain how this will happen. There’s no global dictator who can, for instance, abolish feedlots where corn is fed to cattle.
The issues with terrestrial meat can’t be waved away by suggesting it will be banished. Like the other issues – water use, etc. – smarter approaches need to be undertaken.
Polyface farm style grassfed beef raising is probably the greatest return on sunlight turned into protein. And we will see the adoption of techniques (and others) that rely on raising meat animals on land that is unsuited to agriculture: like raising beef cattle and fowl on dryer grasslands and pigs in oak forests, and without feeding them grain.
The economics of food are already changing, since we are headed for an era of increased urbanism, and at the same time, a planet where connectedness is both a tool and a danger. The global food system – where apples come from China and tomatoes are shipped from Mexico to New York City, both of which are over 90% water – is inherently unsustainable, and is based on the low cost of oil, and our willingness to burn it without consideration for ‘externalities’ like climate change.
There are real dangers ahead, since the confluence of these trends – increasing demand for food, decreasing water resources, and increased cost for oil – suggests that sustainable agriculture is perhaps the greatest single challenge we face.
I believe that new web-based social tools – food tech – is of critical importance for the world, and I have a hard time imaging why world governments are not allocating serious money on these problems.