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5 big ideas to save the global food system

From reining in waste to rethinking the food we produce in the first place, it's time to act.

The key foundations of our agricultural systems — the world’s land, water and climate — ensure that farmers can feed the world. But these resources are being depleted, even as global demand for agricultural products is expected to mushroom in the coming decades.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that demand will be 60 percent higher (PDF) in 2050 than in the three-year average for 2005–2007. If nothing is done, this growth could overwhelm our food systems.

"The best and first solution is to preserve the resources that make global food production possible," wrote contributing author Gary Gardner in "State of the World 2015: Confronting Hidden Threats to Sustainability."

To save our global food system, it’s time to focus on conservation and efficiency. Here are five big ideas for doing this:

1. Combating food waste

Cutting food waste presents a massive opportunity to reshape food systems. One-third of the food we produce, about 1.3 billion tons of it, is wasted every year worldwide. High-income countries waste almost as much food (222 million tons) as is produced in all of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).

Food waste can be reduced by everyone, from farmers to distributors to consumers. At the farm, storage technologies can preserve harvested food until farmers are ready to bring it to market.

Restaurants and businesses can source their food in ways that ensure that they buy only what they need, when they need it. And consumer education in wealthy countries can shift the culture of food from waste to stewardship. With less food waste, we can combat inefficiency, as well as lower the demand for food, fertilizers, pesticides and fuel.

2. Reducing meat and biofuel production

Meat and biofuel production systems compete for the same inputs as food crops. Shifting demand away from these systems could free resources needed for food production.

Meat is a resource-intensive product.

"Some 36 percent — more than one-third — of the world’s grain harvest was used to produce meat in 2014," writes Gardner, citing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Fed directly to humans, this would feed many more people than it does in the form of beef, pork, chicken or fish."

36 percent — more than one-third — of the world’s grain harvest was used to produce meat in 2014. Fed directly to humans, this would feed many more people than it does in the form of beef, pork, chicken or fish.

Meat production also requires large amounts of water. Producing beef, for example, requires over 15,000 liters of water for every kilogram of meat, or 10.2 liters per calorie (compared to about 300 liters per kilogram for vegetables, or 1.3 liters per calorie).

Biofuel production eats up resources that could be used to grow food. Yet some 60 countries have government mandates in place that encourage growth in biofuels.

In the seven countries that dominate this sector, the U.S. government projects that biodiesel production will rise by 30 percent and ethanol by 40 percent between 2013 and 2022. Reversing these mandates may be a key to freeing up more resources to feed the world.

3. Increasing water productivity

If all farms focused on efficiency when watering their crops, farmers could cut their consumption of water dramatically.

A 2014 study showed that if all crops were grown at the top 10 percent of water efficiency (using the same practices as the most efficient farmers), 52 percent of the water used in global production of these crops would be saved.

Setting water footprint benchmarks for various crop types could help to measure the performance and monitor progress in moving toward more-efficient watering practices. With good management and access to financing and technologies (such as drip irrigation), farmers could see huge savings of one of agriculture’s most precious resources.

4. Conserving agricultural land

This one is straightforward: without farmland, there are no farms. The amount and quality of agricultural land available is pivotal to keeping our food systems healthy.

Conservation easements (an agreement that limits certain types of uses or prevents development from taking place on a piece of property) and the purchase of development rights (financially compensating landowners for not developing their land) are both voluntary ways in which landowners can help protect land.

Stronger government action, such as enforcing agricultural zoning and promoting conservation farming practices, can further prevent the degradation of land.

5. Infusing ethics into food trade

According to data from the USDA, about a quarter of the world’s countries imported more than half of their grains in 2013. As populations grow and climates shift, continued food trade will be essential to the survival of many countries.

"[F]ood trade will become an indispensable nutritional lifeline," wrote Gardner. "As such, food trade cannot be treated as just another exchange of goods, and food cannot be treated as just another commodity."

Instead, protecting access to food as a human right will ensure that food cannot be withheld for political reasons. Already, 28 countries (PDF) explicitly have listed a right to food in their national constitutions since the FAO advanced this concept in 2004.

The challenges that the world faces today to feed the world will shift and grow in the coming years. To prepare for this transition, we can’t afford to think small. Through big ideas, the world can combat inefficiency, preserve resources and stabilize societies through stronger food systems.

With these changes, concluded Gardner, "A world under growing resource pressure can continue to ensure that food is available for all."

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Worldwatch Institute

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