Smarter, not just more, ag to feed 9 billion

Image from Visible Earth project, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Click image for detailed credits.

Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, recently posted a very thoughtful piece at Ensia that questions the dominant narrative on population growth and food supply. As he describes,

You’ve probably heard it many times. While the exact phrasing varies, it usually goes something like this: The world’s population will grow to 9 billion by mid-century, putting substantial demands on the planet’s food supply. To meet these growing demands, we will need to grow almost twice as much food by 2050 as we do today. And that means we’ll need to use genetically modified crops and other advanced technologies to produce this additional food. It’s a race to feed the world, and we had better get started.

To be fair, there are grains of truth in each of these statements, but they are far from complete. And they give a distorted vision of the global food system, potentially leading to poor policy and investment choices.

To make better decisions, we need to examine where the narrative goes off the rails.

Foley goes on to carefully consider each of the assumptions of the dominant narrative. After debunking myths and pointing out blind spots, he proposes a very different summary of where we are and how we might face the future:

While the prevailing narrative about the global food supply is persuasive and sounds very logical, it is actually based on several wrong assumptions. It needs to be replaced by a more accurate narrative that can better guide future investments and decisions.

The new narrative might sound something like this: The world faces tremendous challenges to feeding a growing, richer world population — especially to doing so sustainably, without degrading our planet’s resources and the environment. To address these challenges, we will need to deliver more food to the world through a balanced mix of growing more food (while reducing the environmental impact of agricultural practices) and using the food we already have more effectively. Key strategies include reducing food waste, rethinking our diets and biofuel choices, curbing population growth, and growing more food at the base of the agricultural pyramid with low-tech agronomic innovations. Only through a balanced approach of supply-side and demand-side solutions can we address this difficult challenge.

These are big challenges, and there are no simple solutions. As a first step, though, we at least need to be sure that we get the story about the food system straight. After all, if we’re not even starting at the right place, we certainly will not end up at the right destination.

The full piece is really worth a read. Check it out here, and then share it with others.

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