Fixing Farming

Fixing Farming

I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan. I loved The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food and his Earth Day article for The New York Times magazine suggesting that we all grow food in our backyards. (I had hoped to plant my own garden this spring but so far have only a basil plant. Maybe next year.) But Pollan’s high concept diet advice (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) gets us only part of the way to dealing with a big and hugely important global issue – how to feed all the people on the planet without destroying it.

Yes, if we all ate “mostly plants” and less meat, the environment would be a lot better off. (So would our waistlines and arteries.) But we need to grow those plants on less land, using less water, with fewer chemical inputs. To get there, we need to change the way big companies buy food. That, at least, is the view of Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, one of the smartest thinkers on the issue of agriculture and the environment. Jason’s ideas are the topic of today’s Sustainability column. Here’s how the column begins:

Backyard vegetable gardens are fine. So are organics, slow food and locavores -- people who eat produce grown nearby. But solutions to the global food crisis will come from big business, genetically engineered crops and large-scale farms.

So, at least, says Jason Clay, one of the world’s leading experts on agriculture and the environment. Clay leads a global effort to reform agriculture at the World Wildlife Fund, working with buyers and producers of farm products including Coca-Cola (KO), McDonald’s (MCD) and DuPont (DD,).

The problem they face has made headlines lately. Demand for farm products -- food, fiber and fuel -- will keep growing, as the population grows and as hundreds of millions of people move into the middle class and consume more meat and dairy. Global per capita meat consumption has increased by 60 percent in the last 40 years -- that’s 60% per person. Meanwhile, the supply of farmland is limited. Agriculture already uses 55% of the habitable land on the planet. According to Clay, farming is the single largest threat to biodiversity; what’s more, if farmers destroy tropical forests in Brazil or Indonesia to raise cattle or produce palm oil, the impacts on climate change will be severe, because forests store lots of carbon.

One big topic that I did not explore in the column is genetically engineered food. This may sound strange but the debate over genetic engineering of food reminds me of the debate over nuclear power. Both are about assessing risks, but both get very emotional in a hurry; many environmentalists and anti-corporate types dismiss GMOs and nukes as unworthy of consideration. Corporate backers of GMOs and nukes, meanwhile, are loathe to acknowledge the real risks they pose. (I don’t understand why, if nukes are so safe, the industry needs the government to assume liability.) In an ideal world, we might not want or need either. But if GMOs enable us to grow more food (and save lives) with less water or chemicals, and new nukes replace coal-burning power plants that spew CO2 into the air—then they are at least worth thinking about seriously. I’m hoping to look at the GMO issue soon for FORTUNE.

You can read the rest of the column here.