The Future of Food
by Sarah Janes Ugoretz
by Sarah Janes Ugoretz
In April of this year, National Geographic launched an eight-month series aimed at exploring how we eat today and how we might access food in the future. As our population increases and the impacts of climate change become ever more prevalent, this later concern is of growing importance. In addition to each month’s featured article, which is included in the magazine, National Geographic launched NatGeoFood.com, a dynamic web portal that allows readers to dig deeper into the multitude of issues that fall under this topic. Ranging from climate migration and the rise of suburban agrihoods to culinary adventures in Italy and France, you’re sure to find an article or two that attracts your attention.
The inaugural feature, published in the May 2014 issue, provides an introduction to the question of how we will feed nine billion people by 2050. Written by Dr. Jonathan Foley, who directs the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, "A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World" lays out several major challenges facing us as we try to simultaneously increase the amount of food available and decrease the negative environmental impacts of agriculture. Whether or not Foley’s plan is the solution to how to feed the world is up for discussion, but he does raise points that are relevant to anyone who eats—which, to varying degrees, is all of us.
Certified organic vegetables from our fields.
Foley opens the article by saying: "When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet." He’s right. Agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than cars, trucks, trains and airplanes combined. As an industry, it uses the most water and is responsible for an enormous amount of pollution. As forests have been cleared to make way for grazing and crop cultivation, irreplaceable biodiversity has also been lost. While it is projected that our planet will have 9 billion inhabitants by 2050, Foley points out that an increase in the number of mouths to feed is only one part of the problem. As incomes and affluence have risen across the globe, discretionary income is driving up the demand for eggs, meat and dairy. Since a majority of the eggs, meat and dairy being demanded are the result of grain-based production practices, current trends suggest that to keep pace with this demand, soybean and corn production will have to increase two-fold by 2050.
Faced with this looming dilemma, the widespread response by individuals has been to take sides. Today, it’s Big Ag versus local food and organic farming. Instead of further polarizing the issue, Foley emphasizes the need to find common ground. Both conventional agriculture and local and organic production have important know-how and tools to contribute, he urges. "Both approaches offer badly needed solutions; neither one alone gets us there." What he proposes is blending the best of both.
Here is where the five-step plan comes in. While the overall strategy Foley proposes is quite broad, the blueprint is promising and certainly offers a springboard from which to discuss options and move forward. The first step in Foley’s plan is to freeze agriculture’s footprint by putting a moratorium on clearing land for agricultural purposes. We’ve already cleared areas the size of South America for crops and Africa for grazing, and a majority of this land is being used to produce meat and other non-food items such as palm oil and timber. Not only has this convention of agricultural expansion been devastating for the environment, but the populations who depend on the land being cleared often have little say and even less to gain from this practice.
Step two, you might have guessed, is to focus on increasing yields on the land we currently have in production. Foley is careful to differentiate between this approach and the practices that accompanied the Green Revolution. (Beginning in the 1960s, the Green Revolution promoted a set of ideas and tools to farmers primarily in Asia and Latin America, including high-yielding seed varieties, mechanical irrigation systems, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, with the goal of increasing food production. Whether yields actually increased over time has been widely debated, and the Green Revolution’s negative impacts on the environment and on farmers’ rights have been adverse, to put it mildly.) In places where there are "yield gaps"—basically, where the land could produce more if it were subjected to improved farming practices—technology and mechanization could be blended with best practices from organic production techniques to increase yields.
Using resources more efficiently is the third step. Basically, the goal here is to get "more crops per drop." Foley argues that while conventional agriculture has been responsible for its fair share of pollution, technology now exists to help minimize run off and more precisely apply pesticides and fertilizers to crops. Meanwhile, organic farming can be called upon as an example of how to use cover crops, compost and mulches to improve soil health and conserve water. One major concern at this point, however, is that only 55% of the calories grown today feed people directly. Livestock accounts for roughly 36%, while industrial products and biofuels make up the rest. Foley argues that a shift in diets, the fourth step, would make it significantly easier to feed the world’s population. Consider these stunning figures: "For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or 3 of beef." Moving away from grain-based meat production, especially when it comes to beef, would allow us to allocate resources more efficiently. The ultimate result would be an increase in food availability worldwide.
Japanese millet being used as a cover crop in a strawberry field at Harmony Valley Farm.
Foley’s final step, which he believes is one of the most effective ways to increase food availability, focuses on the need to reduce waste. Roughly 25% of the food calories produced globally go unconsumed—either wasted or lost before they can be utilized. In the developed world, food waste occurs in homes, grocery stores and restaurants. Being mindful of portion size, eating leftovers, and buying less could go a long way in reducing waste. By contrast, in the developing world and among least developed countries this waste is often due to inadequate transportation infrastructure and poor or absent storage methods, two factors that make it difficult or impossible for farmers to store their goods and/or move them from field to market. In order to tackle these issues, targeted investment accompanied by long-term efforts is needed.
So that’s it—the five-step plan. Does it sound easy? I can assure you that it won’t be. There are numerous power issues at play, and on the other end of the spectrum there are countless individuals, especially in the developing world, whose rights will likely need to be protected against high-profit and high-yield driven interests. Businesses will need to be convinced to change their practices, and individuals will need to be convinced to change their eating habits. And don’t forget about that changing climate of ours. Many—perhaps at some point, all—of the steps we take going forward will need to be based on projected or observed climate change impacts.
"The good news," Foley assures us, "is that we already know what we have to do; we just need to figure out how to do it." In the coming months, we’ll continue to build off of many of the points Foley raises in this piece, as we discuss and consider the remaining seven articles in the Future of Food series. By the time we reach the end, our hope is that we—and you—are left with a measured and informed outlook on the future of food.