One more hungry mouth to feed? Try 9.6 billion -- that’s the earth’s projected population by 2050, according to a United Nations report.
Dinner was on the table, figuratively speaking, at a recent Climate One event at The Commonwealth Club. It’s estimated the amount of food needed to feed the planet will double by mid-century, so how will we manage the world’s food supply? Is the solution to simply produce more food?
“In a word, no,” says Jonathan Foley, author of National Geographic’s recent cover story A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World. While food production has reached the equivalent of “drill, baby, drill – let’s just get more stuff,” he continues, “we’re now exhausting the ability of our agricultural system to simply produce more and more and more. We’re going to have to be more thoughtful about the food we actually grow today, and the nutrition and opportunity delivers for people around the world.”
Karen Ross, California Food and Agriculture Secretary, agrees that with thoughtful management, “every acre itself can be more productive, without tearing out more land, without using more water, without using more fertilizer.” It’s about optimizing our resources, says Ross, “to get the best crop per drop, best crop per acre, thinking differently about what we grow and how we grow it and maximizing what we have, instead of the traditional way which has been, let’s go tear out another 50 acres of pristine land and irrigate more and add more.”
Climate change is exacerbating the problem, says Foley -- but there are two sides to that coin. Many people don’t realize that agriculture contributes more to climate change than the energy or transportation sectors. “It turns out agriculture releases about 30% [of greenhouse gas emissions], mostly from deforestation, methane coming from cattle and rice fields, from nitrous oxide…so on one side climate change is crucial to the future of agriculture, but agriculture is also critical to the future of addressing our climate problems.”
Nurturing a sustainable food system would seem to be one solution. But, asked host Greg Dalton, what exactly does that mean? Jonathan Foley offers this definition: “Agriculture is such a basic human enterprise. It’s about feeding our world, about creating opportunity for farmers and everyone through the supply chain, all the way to the restaurant or who serves the food, and of course about the environment. So I think we have to think about those three dimensions: nutrition, about the economics of agriculture and certainly about the environment. And a sustainable agricultural system would be the one that looks at all three dimensions simultaneously.”
As Bon Appétit’s Director of Google Global Foods, Helene York designs workplace menus and coaches chefs on the definition of “sustainable.” She described the Bon Appétit philosophy: “You start with deliciousness. More and more we’re introducing plant-centric food. And we start our lines in a café line with three different wonderful vegetables. And by the time you’ve filled your purposefully smaller plate, you are mostly full on that plate and you say, wow I have a delicious three colored meal here. I'll take a little bit meat or fish on the top. It'll be our garnish.”
Humans don’t need to consume 16 ounces of meat protein a day, she says, but in the United States, we often approach that number. “But if we dial that back, because there’s so much more energy needed to produce proteins, then we leave a lot of resources to provide and grow vegetables that are delicious.”
Food waste is a major problem; according to Foley, the numbers are “astonishing.” Roughly 40 percent of the food produced in the world isn’t consumed, and loss occurs at both ends of the food chain. In richer countries, he says, it centers on the consumer, “in a restaurant, maybe in a cafeteria, maybe in our refrigerators and our Tupperware with lots of good intentions, but it just doesn’t get in our tummies.
“But where we have food loss in a lot of developing countries is near the farmer,” he continues. “They grew the food, but maybe it couldn’t get harvested in time, maybe the insects got to it or maybe it rotted in storage because the trains weren’t on time or the truck didn’t get where it’s supposed to go. So it’s more of an infrastructure problem, not an overconsumption problem.”
And waste, Foley points out, is a purely human invention. “There’s nothing in nature called waste. It doesn’t exist -- it’s just food for something else. And so we have to think a lot more in our food system like ecological systems do: what’s not used one place is used somewhere else. Whether it’s repurpose food or repurpose organic matter for energy or for rebuilding the soil. We just got to be smarter than we’ve been. That’s certainly where we have room to grow.”