Can we continue to feed the world while doing less harm?

[Editor's note: This is part of a month-long series on food sustainability by Marc Gunther.]

I’ve just returned from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions conference feeling optimistic about the potential to change the way we grow food, cook and eat. Maybe it’s the wine, the seafood and the wonderful fruits and vegetables (fried artichokes!) from nearby California farms, but I don’t think so. More likely it’s the passion that food reformers bring to their work -- and my sense that more people are coming to understand that we need to get smarter about how our food is produced. Our food system is depleting the earth’s resources and making us sick, even as a 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, or GMOs. A national petition drive to get the FDA to require labels for GMOs has collected more than one 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 50 or 70 miles to take a few bushels of fruits and vegetables to a suburban farmer’s market.

Now, before you get annoyed with me, let’s stipulate that transparency is laudable, that “local” tends to be fresher than “global” and that 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 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 seven 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 nine 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.

Next page: Billions more coming to dinner