Big and Small Questions About Food

Our food system is depleting the earth’s resources and making us sick, even as 1 billion people around the world go hungry. It’s got to change, and it can change–so long as we don’t get distracted by small questions about food and lose sight of...


Our food system is depleting the earth’s resources and making us sick, even as 1 billion people around the world go hungry. It’s got to change, and it can change–so long as we don’t get distracted by small questions about food and lose sight of the big ones.

Take the brouhaha over labeling food containing genetically-modified organisms. A national petition drive to get the FDA to require labels for GMOs has collected more than 1 million signatures, as well as a ballot initiative in California to require labels. What, exactly, will these campaigns accomplish? There’s a broad scientific consensus that GMOs are no worse (or better) for human health than crops developed using traditional breeding methods.

Then there’s the discussion about “food miles” and eating local. The USDA promotes farmers’ markets and a Know Your Farmer program. Walmart is buying more local food. But, to what end? Shipping food, even long distances, accounts for only a fraction of agriculture’s environmental footprint. And, there’s nothing “green” about driving a truck with a few bushels of fruits and vegetables to a suburban farmer’s market 50 or 75 miles away.

Now, before you get annoyed with me, let’s stipulate that transparency is laudable, “local” tends to be fresher than “global” and browsing around a farmer’s markets is a pleasant way to pass time on a weekend morning.

But, the big question about food is this: How can agriculture meet the world’s growing need for food while doing less environmental harm? That was the topic of an excellent presentation in Monterey recently by Jonathan Foley, an ecology professor and the director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

“We’re running out of everything,” Foley said. “Agriculture uses up a planet’s worth of land, a planet’s worth of water and agriculture is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. If you want to solve climate change you absolutely have to address agriculture and its emissions. It’s huge.”

Right now, farmers grow enough to feed the world’s 7 billion people. The reasons why so many don’t get enough to eat have more to do with poverty, waste and distribution than absolute shortages of food. But to feed a population that’s expected to grow to 9 or 10 billion by 2050 and, more importantly, to satisfy the demands of a growing middle class, food production will have to double, if current trends continue.

“We’ve got 2 billion more people coming to dinner,” Foley said. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that many card tables.” The bigger problem, he said, is that a few billion more people will become wealthier and—again, if today’s trends continue—they will want a diet with more meat. Said Foley: “They’re looking at the menu and saying, ‘I think I’ll have the filet mignon.’”

So what’s to be done? In his talk, and in a 2011 paper in Nature entitled “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” Foley laid out these broad strategies to attack the problems of food security and environmental sustainability:

Stop deforestation. “This is the single most important thing we can do for the environment,” he said. Clearing tropical forests to grow soy or palm has major negative effects on biodiversity and GHG emissions and delivers only small food production benefits, he said.

Grow more food on less land. This doesn’t necessarily require breakthroughs in agricultural technology or productivity, though they would help. What’s needed is to bring the best available farming methods, whether organic or conventional, to places where yields are low. “Across Africa, there are huge opportunities to produce yield with agro-ecological methods or green revolution methods,” Foley said. Interestingly, Foley said GMOs are not improving yields, except in India for cotton. They’re “not feeding the world’s poor yet,” he said.

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