How to invest in a sustainable food future

How to invest in a sustainable food future

The call to feed 9 billion people by 2050 is a common refrain among food industry leaders, held up as the ultimate, if elusive, goal of production and sustainability. Unfortunately, current approaches to address this challenge are unsustainable — from economic, ecological and social perspectives.

Today’s investment dollars are going toward business models that are strikingly myopic in their approach, based on the belief that increased consumption is the key to economic growth. As everyone knows, however, our Earth’s natural resources are finite, and they are degrading faster than we are replenishing them. Therefore, we need to shift from a “more consumption” to a “better consumption” model. We need a forward-thinking strategy that will help us build resiliency and regeneration into our ecosystems as we grow food for an increasing population.

By reconsidering our investments and developing new solutions, we will ensure not only enough food for 9 billion, but also a planet that provides clean water, fertile soil and rich biodiversity — as well as healthier consumers and stronger communities — in 2050 and beyond. 

Agricultural evolution

In the past few decades, farming systems have changed dramatically. Following World War II, the agricultural sector underwent a chemical revolution, with DDT being one of the first broadly used pesticides. Many farmers embraced it as a way to control unwanted pests or weeds, but it came at a cost to humans and wildlife. By the 1960s, it was linked to nervous system and liver damage, breast cancer, miscarriages, developmental delays and male infertility.

Although DDT is now banned in the United States, other chemicals are similarly concerning. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is used extensively worldwide but has been linked to birth defects and cancers. In addition, a 2009 paper published in the European Journal of Agronomy finds it compromises plants’ defense mechanisms, making them more susceptible to disease and ultimately leading to reduced yields.

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U.S. farm size has also increased, due in no small part to 1970s federal policies that helped drive farmland consolidation and monoculture cropping. According to an Economic Research Service report, as of 2007, farms with more than 1,000 acres now account for more than 60 percent of all U.S. farmland and more than 40 percent of all U.S. agricultural production value. While farm size is not inherently a problem, how the farm is managed can be: toxic, persistent chemical applications come at a cost to human health and the environment, and less diversification creates vulnerabilities in the system.

The most recent agricultural developments center around genetic engineering. In the nearly two decades since genetically engineered crops (commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) have been farmed commercially, they have focused on adding two primary traits to crops: a herbicide-tolerant trait that allows crops to survive chemical sprays while a weed is destroyed, and an insect-resistant trait that gives crops a built-in toxin so farmers can use fewer pesticides. Although designed to use fewer chemicals on crops such as corn, soy, canola and cotton, these two traits actually have led to an increase of 400 million pounds of agrochemical applications in the United States, according to a study of pesticide use from 1996 to 2011 published in Environmental Sciences Europe in 2012.

To further complicate matters, evidence in recent years demonstrates nature adapting to chemical spray through the evolution of “superweeds.” These weeds are chemical resistant; 24 weed species are resistant to glyphosate. This results in farmers needing to use more — or more toxic — chemicals to combat them, which pollutes our soils and waters, creates known risks to humans and ultimately doesn’t help farmers.

Finally, a study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that no genetically engineered corn or soy crops increased intrinsic yields (yields grown under “ideal” conditions) in the U.S. Operational yields — those that occur under field conditions — also didn’t increase for herbicide-tolerant corn and soy crops. Only the built-in toxin trait for corn demonstrated modest increased yields of approximately 0.2-0.3 percent per year from 1996 to 2009. Relative to yield increases from conventional breeding – corn yields have increased an average of 1 percent per year in the past several decades – it appears the impact of GMO crops is modest, at best.

All told, this is not a resounding return on investment. Based on performance to date, we need to think outside the singular box of GMOs and instead invest in a broad range of tools to address the challenges at hand. 

Toward a better path

To feed our growing population sustainably, the food community must rethink the system and accelerate investment in a more sustainable future. The innovations already are out there. Now we need to refine and replicate them throughout the world. And we need to get to critical mass, because it’s not just one company that needs to invest in these innovations in order to feed 9 billion by 2050. Rather, it’s all of us who must think about where we invest our resources — be it the financial sector, the food sector, the government, nonprofit organizations or simply ourselves, the eaters.

We can do this by moving toward broader, big-picture systems thinking, which tells us that we can’t understand a problem by looking only at individual parts. Instead, we must understand how the parts interact with and influence each other. As naturalist John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

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What follows is a series of ideas exploring how to start thinking differently about our food system, taking into account all aspects of this complex network.

Rethink: How We Farm

Farming is the foundation of our food system, so it’s critical we start here. We need innovations that not only will increase food production, but also create vibrant rural communities and protect healthy ecosystems.

Invest in agroecological farming — While many farmers rely heavily on chemical inputs to grow their crops, some farmers are finding ways to balance productivity and ecosystem health through agroecological practices. Agroecology is a scientific approach to managing agricultural land by understanding the structure and function of the natural ecosystems on which it is built.

Kenneth Miller is a farmer in North Dakota who practices agroecology using cover crops and livestock to build soil health. Unlike many of his neighbors, Miller divides his fields into manageable sections, reincorporating livestock and devising what he calls a “cover crop cocktail.” Cover crop cocktails vary, but the purpose is to include a blend of different species and plant types, each with its own rooting patterns that help contribute to diversity and restoration of microbial and physical soil function after producing a single grain crop. Miller is building soil organic matter, the critical component for sustainable land stewardship. He also is seeing increased crop yields while reducing costs, resulting in net profitability.

Likewise, the Marsden Farm study out of Iowa State University, highlighted in a 2012 article by Mark Bittman of the New York Times, describes a four-year rotation that included corn, soy, oats and alfalfa, along with integrated livestock management, to produce higher yields of corn and soy than strictly corn and soy rotations or corn, soy and oat rotations. In the study, nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides decreased by up to 88 percent and toxins in the ground decreased 200-fold, all while profits remained the same. Again, another example of agroecology principles in action.

Apply agrochemicals judiciously — An agroecological farmer may still want to use agrochemicals, but they should be applied as a last resort, not a first line of defense. I know farmers who have battled a vicious weed, bindweed, that can live for up to 30 years and wreaks havoc on farmland, with roots that travel up to 30 feet deep into the soil. Some of these farmers used herbicides, but only after years of trying to combat bindweed through nonchemical methods.

To move away from pollutants and to better support farmers, agrochemical companies should shift their investments in product innovation to ones that are nontoxic and nonpersistent, and turn more attention to bio-based solutions that eliminate excess waste and pollution.

Furthermore, we need to measure precisely what we’re putting onto the soil and at what rates. At present, we don’t have a comprehensive, publicly available database that tracks pesticides (active and “inert” ingredients) and how long they persist in the soil. This must be created. More importantly, we need to conduct more independent research on how these chemicals affect the environment, humans and animals over the long term.  

Develop farmer knowledge networks — When it comes to innovation, shared information — both from farmers and from publicly available research — is critical. This farming shift must be supported by a knowledge network. Just as software engineers have innovated in leaps and bounds using “open source” shared code, farmers will innovate at a much faster rate if they can access information on what practices work for which crops, under what conditions and in which geographies.

Some forward-thinking farmers are already moving down this path. In 1999, a group of farmers affiliated with the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society formed the Farm Breeding Club. Their goal was to share knowledge and seed stock for seed saving and crop breeding. The FBC provides information to farmers so they can directly participate in public plant breeding efforts. Today they have 13 crops being researched by farmers, including potatoes, oats and sweet corn.

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Rethink: How We Move Food

Beyond farming, we need to rethink how our food travels from farm to plate. Along each step, there are ample opportunities to improve this journey.

Transition to a more regionalized system — Experts have long argued that feeding hungry people is not a problem of production, it’s a problem of distribution. In a May 2012 report, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found that even if we increased agricultural productivity by 60 percent by 2050, we’d still have 300 million hungry people because they lack access to food.

By regionalizing global farming, communities can feed themselves and rely less on imports. A region should be defined based on its ecological dimensions — the geographical area that accounts for ecological parameters, such as water and land resources, and the conditions necessary to feed nearby populations.

Regionalization does not necessitate eliminating exports. After all, much of farming is about responding to nature — droughts, hailstorms, monsoons, etc. — and production yields vary by the season. But in transitioning to a more regionalized system, farmers would be required to rely on their local markets, too.

Reduce waste — According to the FAO, about one-third of the food produced globally each year is wasted somewhere between farm and plate. This translates to 1.3 billion metric tons of food. In the U.S., the waste percentage is 40 percent. If total U.S. food losses were reduced by just 15 percent, says an August 2012 report by the National Resources Defense Council, more than 25 million Americans could be fed every year.

With a keener eye to where losses are taking place, we can begin to address the problem. In wealthier countries, we can raise consumer awareness about reducing food waste at home, create incentives for municipal composting systems, improve post-harvest handling and storage, and find ways to market products that aren’t “perfect,” such as fruits and vegetables with cosmetic blemishes. In lower income countries, improvements in harvesting techniques and low-cost storage and cooling facilities can make a significant difference between spoiled and edible foods. Regardless of where the losses occur, businesses should work to address the challenges. Losses like these are equivalent to throwing money away, and no one can afford to do that.

Empower employees — Rethinking how food moves from farm to consumer requires a new level of engagement with employees. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink draws on four decades of scientific research about what motivates people, highlighting three elements: mastery, autonomy and purpose. While traditional rewards and compensation still have a role, these more intangible elements are key to unlocking high performance and innovation. And innovation comes from people who know their jobs best — employees on the ground and on the shop floor.

Morning Star Company, based in Woodland, Calif., is the world’s largest tomato processor, managing 25 to 30 percent of the tomatoes processed each year in the U.S. It created a business model where employees are empowered to achieve goals through collaboration, and no one holds titles or hierarchy. As one person at the company said, “nobody’s your boss and everybody’s your boss.” This model has resulted in many benefits, including increased initiative, expertise, flexibility and loyalty. 

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Rethink: How We Eat

No conversation about changing the food system is complete unless it includes the consumer’s role. Although altering our eating habits isn’t easy, we must grow more aware of the link between what we eat and the land. To quote writer Wendell Berry: “Eating is an agricultural act.”

Eat less, but better, meat — Americans account for just 4.5 percent of the world’s population, but we eat approximately 15 percent of the meat produced globally. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, this amounts to 170 pounds of meat per person each year. Many of these animals consume grains, resulting in a lot of land devoted to growing feed — in fact, one-third of global cereal crop production is fed to animals.

While meat can be part of a healthy diet, too much leads to health problems, such as high cholesterol and heart disease. And when animals are raised in ways that pollute our environment, this only exacerbates the problem. Excrement and urine from confined animals, for example, can leach into water and soil and emit dangerous concentrations of greenhouse gasses.

Animals can, instead, be raised to benefit our production systems. They are efficient grazers and can be an integral part of crop rotation. Returning animals to pasture instead of confined housing would reduce their numbers, but they would be raised with more space to roam and no routine antibiotics, and more land would be available to directly feed people. Thus, we could expect a multitude of benefits by making the simple choice to eat less meat.

Provide food education — Access to good food is only one part of developing new eating habits; we also need to know what to do with it. By teaching people how to grow foods, read recipes, train a palate and develop cooking skills, we can dramatically change the food system. Food Corps — a national organization that places leaders for a year of public service in communities with limited resources — introduces kids to food education and connects them to where their food comes from. In just a few years’ time, this group is driving change, reaching more than 29,000 children.

Food companies actively can engage as well, whether it’s by providing examples of how a whole food like steamed broccoli pairs with a processed food product like macaroni and cheese, or supporting food education in our schools and communities. After all, what will have a more profound impact on the health of members of our next generation than teaching them about how to eat?

To a better future

To feed our growing population, we need the food community to accelerate investment in a more sustainable food system. The innovations already are available, and now is the time to invest in and refine them. Systemic change cannot come from one company, government or individual; everyone needs to be involved. Are there other factors that should be considered? Of course. These are complex issues with complex solutions. Are we going to get there within a year? No. But we need to wake up to the need for a paradigm shift in how we do things in order to get us on a sustainable path to feeding 9 billion by 2050. The people on this planet and the natural resources we depend on cannot afford to progress on a linear path. Instead, we need to rethink the system.

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This article originally appeared at Ensia.com.