The first problem is the question itself. There is no one challenge to overcome, but multiple challenges: for example, improving yields where it’s needed most, dramatically cutting food losses (from pests, poor refrigeration and other problems in the developing world, and largely from sheer waste in the US, Europe and elsewhere) and reducing the amount of fossil fuel used by the food sector (which currently accounts for 30 percent of all the energy we consume).
While such hurdles sound even daunting, they don’t have to be: we have the capabilities today to solve many of these problems already.
So why aren’t we well on our way to making sure every person on the planet is adequately nourished?
One problem is the appeal of the “silver bullet.” Innovative people and companies like to tout the idea that with just one great development – the one coming out of their labs or garages, of course – the world’s food problems can be solved. Maybe it’s perennial wheat. Maybe it’s genetically modified crops. Maybe it’s vertical farming.
In reality, though, the solution might not be that sexy. In late 2011, an international team of researchers published a paper showing how the world’s food production could be doubled while also reducing the negative environmental impacts of agriculture. The answer, they found, lies in a combination of approaches rather than with a single technology.
“No single strategy is sufficient to solve all our problems,” they wrote in “Solutions for a cultivated planet,” published in the journal Nature. “Think silver buckshot, not a silver bullet.”
Their “buckshot” approach entails five steps:
- Stop agriculture from consuming more tropical land – In other words, no more deforestation or expansion of the farming footprint.
- Boost the productivity of farms that have the lowest yields – Rather than looking to “improved crop genetics and management” to boost agricultural yields in already productive parts of the world, we would be better off focusing our attention on improving yields on the least productive farms in places like Africa, Central America and eastern Europe.
- Raise the efficiency of water and fertilizer use worldwide – Combined with better seeds for the planet’s top 16 crops, more effective use of fertilizer and improved irrigation “could increase total food production by 50 to 60 percent, with little environmental damage.”
- Reduce per capita meat consumption – Switching to an all-plant diet could net us “up to three quadrillion additional calories every year – a 50 percent increase from our current supply.” Even replacing grain-fed beef with lower-impact chicken, pork or grass-fed beef could have a significant impact.
- Reduce waste in food production and distribution – Losses of all kinds cost us about 30 percent of all the food we produce, amounting to some 1.3 billion tons a year.
Smart food FAQ
Q: How many people today don’t have enough food? A: Out of a global population of seven billion, about one billion are considered “chronically malnourished.”
Q: How much more food will we need to produce in the future? A: By 2050, it’s expected that we’ll need to produce around 70 percent more food than today, according to “Energy-Smart Food for People and Climate,” a 2011 report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Q: How much land is currently used for agriculture? A: Not counting Antarctica and Greenland, about 38 percent of the world’s land area is used for farming or pasture – and much of the remaining land (mountains, deserts, etc.) isn’t usable for agriculture. Over the past three-plus decades, the amount of global farmland has grown primarily by expansion in the tropics (ie, by deforestation).
Q: How much has agricultural yield increased in recent years? A: According to the researchers who wrote “Solutions for a cultivated planet,” global yields for a select group of crops increased by 56 percent between 1965 and 1985. From 1985 to 2005, however, average yields improved by just 20 percent.
Who’s who in smart food:
Agrinos – Headquartered in Oslo, Agrinos offers a High Yield Technology system that addresses multiple aspects of crop management. The company says its solution is certified organic and “helps farmers to practice profitable agriculture by providing increased crop productivity, improved efficiency of conventional fertilizer and a reduced environmental footprint.”
Cibus – Headquartered in San Diego, Cibus uses its Rapid Trait Development System technology to breed crops with desirable characteristics without the use of genetic engineering.
Eco Ola – With offices in Utah and Peru, Eco Ola’s “superfoods” are produced on a scalable model farm in Peru that incorporates “elements of agro-ecology and permaculture.” Its farming methods include the use of biochar and integrated pest management.
Exosect – The UK-based Exosect develops natural bio-control products to protect crops from diseases and pests.
M-Farm – Based in Nairobi, MFarm provides software that links Kenyan farmers to SMS-based information on produce buyers, real-time crop prices and favorably priced farm inputs.
SureHarvest – The California-based SureHarvest adapts business process approaches such as Lean, Six Sigma and Total Quality Management to the “much more variable conditions of farming, harvest logistics and packing/shipping.