Trying to tap into the best thinking about the future of global agriculture, as I have tried to do in my work as a reporter, can be an exercise in frustration. Many groups and many bright people go at the problem, but not many of them go at it in a holistic way.
The environmental crowd is worried mainly about the ecological damage from agriculture and is prone to recommend solutions that farmers say would undercut the food supply. Traditional agronomists are mainly worried about supply — and tend at times to recommend fixes that might worsen the environmental damage.
A separate crowd is primarily worried about the inequities in the global food system: that a billion people at the top end are killing themselves eating overly rich diets while a billion poor people live desperate lives circumscribed by malnutrition.
Can’t we figure out how to fix all this at once?
It’s a tall order, but a heartening development in global agricultural policy is that some people are starting to try. Now comes an interesting new installment in the literature of the Big Fix. It’s an analysis by an international team of scientists led by Jonathan A. Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.
Their paper, “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” was released online and is scheduled as the cover article of the Oct. 20 issue of the journal Nature. Dr. Foley is also publishing a piece in the November issue of Scientific American, due on newsstands next week, that summarizes the team’s analysis in layman’s terms.
The group finds, as others have before them, that the challenge of doubling global food production in coming decades can probably be met, albeit with considerable difficulty. The interesting thing to me about the analysis is that it doesn’t treat any of the problems confronting the food system as superior to the others — it treats the environmental problem, the supply problem and the equity problem as equally important, laying out a case that they all need to be tackled at once.
“Feeding nine billion people in a truly sustainable way will be one of the greatest challenges our civilization has ever faced,” Dr. Foley says in the Scientific American article, referring to the projected global population at midcentury. (He outlines some of the links between environmental problems and agriculture in this talk, and his group produced a popular animated clip that gives a sense of the scale of the problems here.)
Many elements of the new paper will be familiar to readers who follow these issues. Yet it is interesting to see these building blocks of a smarter food system spelled out in one paper, with hard numbers attached.
For starters, the group argues that the conversion of forests and grasslands to agricultural use needs to stop now; the environmental damage we are doing chopping down the Amazon far exceeds the small gain in food production, it says.
Next, the paper contends that increases in food supply need to come from existing farmland by a process of intensified production in regions where yields are low: northeastern India, Eastern Europe, parts of South America and large parts of Africa being good examples.
If yields in these regions could be brought to within 75 percent of their known potential using modern farming methods, including fertilizer and irrigation, total global supply of major foodstuffs would expand by 28 percent, the paper found. If yields were brought to 95 percent of their potential, close to those achieved in rich countries, the supply increase would be a whopping 58 percent.
The paper does not say so, but I suspect that either development would be enough to reverse the soaring food prices of recent years.
Another important strategy laid out in the paper is to improve the efficiency of agriculture in places where yields are already high. If farmers in Africa need more fertilizer, farmers in the United States need less.
The paper essentially argues that high yields can be attained with fewer chemicals and less water, which would not only cut pollution but in some cases also cut costs for farmers.
And finally, the paper argues that more of the food we grow needs to wind up on people’s plates. That means cutting food waste, not just the kind so common in Western kitchens but also the tremendous post-harvest losses caused by bad storage conditions in poor countries.
And it means a shift in diets away from meat and dairy products, which are inefficient to produce, and toward plants. The paper acknowledges that a massive transition to vegetarianism is unlikely but argues that even incremental changes — getting many people to move from less-efficient beef to more-efficient chicken, for instance — would make a difference.
The paper studiously avoids taking sides in the ideological wars over the food system. It does not adopt the left-leaning argument that organic production is the answer to the world’s food issues, nor the rightward view that markets will solve all problems.
It does argue for pulling as many good ideas as possible from emerging food movements into the conventional system — but only if they serve the three goals of increasing supply, reducing environmental damage and improving food security.
As a scientific report, not a policy document, the Foley paper does not offer any big new proposals for how to make all these things happen. Many commentators who have studied these issues have come to the conclusion that the barriers are not primarily technical but involve a lack of political will to solve the problems, leading to low public investment in agriculture.
In his Scientific American article, Dr. Foley does make one intriguing proposal. Pointing to the certification system that has encouraged the construction of green buildings, he asks: what about a new certification system for sustainably produced food?
Instead of catering to a single ideological predilection, the way the organic label does now, the new label would be based on a system that awards points for public benefits and subtracts them for environmental harm. Foods produced according to the best practices would get the highest scores, or possibly the highest letter grades. If consumers adopted it, such a certification would put pressure on companies and farmers to clean up their practices.
“This certification would help us get beyond current food labels such as ‘local’ and ‘organic,’ which do not tell us much about what we are eating,” Dr. Foley writes in Scientific American.
I can only imagine the ideological battles that will erupt if this idea is taken seriously. Yet some of the needed elements are already falling into place, like attempts in Europe to measure the carbon footprint of various foods.
If scientists with no axes to grind could manage to keep control of the certification system, using it as a vehicle to apply stringent performance criteria to farming systems while turning the label into a global brand, the world might have a powerful new tool for improving the food supply — and the health of the planet.