How can we feed a growing global population without trashing the planet? It’s the trillion-dollar question on the lips of anyone with a flicker of foresight or a crumb of conscience, and was faced head-on in a recent article by National Geographic. Below, we take a look at the article and give our views on its main points.
"Feeding 9 Billion: A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World", which was presented online as a scrolling, interactive article, gives a fascinating account of the spectre of food insecurity and, crucially, how we can make provision for a projected population of 9 billion people in 2050 – without destroying the planet.
Not only will there be more mouths to feed, but – with the spread of prosperity in the developing world – people are demanding more meat, eggs and dairy than ever before. This combination of more mouths and "richer" diets is a calamitous one.
As the article explains, the intensive agriculture that provides our food is inflicting a catalogue of ecological ills on the world. From soaring greenhouse-gas emissions to increased levels of pollution, the devastating loss of biodiversity and the overuse of natural resources, it paints a sorry picture of a planet in peril.
Finding common ground
The article insists that the food-security debate has become polarised and over-simplified in recent years, with small, organic operations being pitted against large, intensive methods, and presented as the only way forward.
But, it argues, there’s some common ground: "...it needn’t be an either-or proposition. Both approaches offer badly needed solutions; neither one alone gets us there. We would be wise to explore all of the good ideas, whether from organic and local farms or high-tech and conventional farms..."
Below is a summary of National Geographic’s five-step plan for "blending the best of both" agricultural approaches – also known as "sustainable intensification" – in an effort to achieve food security. We include our views on each of the main points.
The Five-Step Plan
1: Freeze Agriculture’s Footprint
Agricultural expansion is ruining ecosystems; but often these newly created areas are used to produce cattle, timber, palm oil and feed for livestock, rather than food for people. We must avoid further deforestation for farmland.
OUR VIEW: Curbing agricultural expansion is not enough. We need to restore existing, depleted farmland to increase biodiversity (and maintain yields in the future) and also redefine how much of our farmland is used – crop monocultures, which are mainly grown for animal feed, need to be replaced with more nutritious crops for human consumption.
2: Grow More on Farms We’ve Got
Where possible, close up "yield gaps" between current production levels and production potential by improving farming practices using clever, precision-farming techniques and efficient organic-farming methods.
OUR VIEW: Great caution is needed here, so that we avoid the well-trodden route of intensive farming, which guzzles fossil fuels and fertilisers, focuses on unsustainable monocultures, encourages big-ag monopolies and can undermine local food security and livelihoods.
3: Use Resources More Efficiently
Target the use of fertilisers and pesticides using tractors equipped with advanced sensors and GPS, tailor their use to specific soil types, and borrow smart organic-farming techniques to improve soil quality and save water.
OUR VIEW: It’s far more useful to evaluate agricultural yields as "people fed by hectare" than "tonnes produced per hectare"; with this in mind, the achievements of industrial monocultures pale in comparison to farms growing multiple crops that interact with other plants and animals, and can often use the waste from one process as the input for another.
4: Shift Diets
Consuming less meat (or replacing grain-fed beef with chicken, pork or pasture-raised beef) could free up a substantial amount of food – most crops are fed to livestock, rather than people, and in the process, huge numbers of calories are lost.
OUR VIEW: Though replacing grain-fed beef with grain-fed chicken could be viewed as more efficient – since chickens have a better feed-conversion ratio than cows – it still involves using human-edible crops (and the resources used to grow them) to feed animals, which is inefficient. Pasture-based ruminants are a much better option, because they convert grass (something we cannot eat) into food for people. The subject of animal welfare also needs considering – grass-based ruminant systems present some of the highest animal-welfare potential of any livestock system. The upshot is that diets rich in plants, with the occasional piece of good-quality meat, is what we should be striving for.
5: Reduce Waste
Currently, a quarter of the world’s food calories are wasted – homes, restaurants, supermarkets and leaky agricultural transportation and storage are the best-known culprits. We need to tackle this endemic problem.
OUR VIEW: Two waste-related issues are ignored here. Firstly, the countless calories that are lost when we feed human-edible crops to animals; shifting our diets to include more plants and pasture-fed meat could help alleviate the problem. The other point is that, as we’ve discussed above, waste can be used to our advantage, as an input for another process.
While it’s hugely reassuring to see such high-profile publications as National Geographic tackling the pressing, contentious issue of food security, it has to be said that the sustainable-intensification "solution" isn’t a straightforward one.
In fact, it’s a hugely complex, loaded issue, with a whole set of associated challenges and shortcomings. It’s just one approach in the fight for food, and those who dub it as the answer to our prayers must acknowledge its drawbacks and limitations, and work hard to mitigate them.
The truth is that there’s really only one step we can take that’s absolutely certain to make a difference; one thing we can all do to contribute to food security for our children and our children’s children. And that is to eat more plants and less, but better-quality, meat.