BSR 2010: What Will it Take to Feed the Future?

BSR 2010: What Will it Take to Feed the Future?

Food production sits at the intersection of some of the most fraught concerns in the landscape of sustainability. Combining life-or-death issues of nutrition, with pressing concerns about the environment together with questions over the role of big industrial players in agricultural, food production sparks passions in boardrooms and dining rooms alike.

At BSR 2010, the tensions pulling at these issues surfaced in a standing-room-only session titled "Feeding the Future: What will it Take."

World Wildlife Fund's Jason Clay, who ran his family's farm early in his life, laid out the challenge facing the world's food production systems. Today, just 30 percent of arable land remains unfarmed. Yet over the last 10 years, that share of farmed land has grown by bout 0.6 percent per year. If this pace continues steadily, by 2050, all but 6 percent of untouched arable land will be put to use, meaning rain forests and other pristine environments will be imperiled.

"Suddenly there will be no biodiversity left. We will eat the planet. We have to figure out how to do more with less," said Clay. To get there from here, without eating the planet, Clay estimates we'll have to do about twice as much with every input -- whether plants, or phosphorus, or water, or land.

Clay pointed out that water is another huge constraint. Today humans use half the fresh water supply on the planet, and of that, about 70 percent goes for farming. Put another way, he explained that it takes about 1 liter of water to produce each calorie of food we eat. So a person's daily water consumption isn't really the few liters they drink directly, but the 2,500 or 3,000 liters they eat each day.

Driving the food consumption is rising wealth. By 2050, Clay predicts, the world will have some 9 billion people, with 2.9 times more income on average than today. And in many of the largest, less developed countries, income could grow by 5 times per capita.

By practically any measure, wealth translates into healthier populations. But as newly wealthy populations boost their meat intake, the impact on food systems will be stressful, and enormous. A richer world will eat more protein, which demands much more energy, water and farming resources to grow. "We're seeing it with pork in China and eggs in India," said Clay.

To feed this richer, more populous world, Clay emphasized that no single strategy can do the trick, so we should be pursuing many at once. Reducing waste is among the best near term steps, he points out, given that one of every three food calories is wasted worldwide.

By simply eliminating wasted food, said Clay, "we could produce half as much additional new food we expect to need under the business as usual plan." Sounds easy? But it runs against deeply ingrained practices in restaurants -- where portion sizes are often too big -- and shoppers' love affair with fresh food. Transporting fresh food not only wastes about half the food, but uses more energy.

To meet future food demands, Clay suggests efforts should focus on the bottom of the economic pyramid, where farmers are far less productive. Today the best farms are 100 times more productive than the worst. And the best countries are ten fold better, on average, than the worst. "Do we get more bang from our buck moving the best a little bit, or moving the bottom a lot?" asked Clay, "Moving the bottom is far more important."

Slow Food USA's Josh Viertel, who has also worked on farms, agreed with Clay that the focus should be on the bottom of the economic pyramid, but that the methods should focus on education, rather than technology heavy solutions, or greater corporatization.

"If we do this wrong, we risk hurting a lot of people. In 2008, we grew more food than in history of the world," said Viertel. "More profit was made by big agriculture firms than ever before. But in the same year, more people were obese than ever before. And more people starved to death." Training can make a huge impact on output, Viertel emphasized. In Senegal, projects focused on working with women farmers, teaching them how to "stack" livestock production onto farm land, to increase the return on a given plot. The livestock fertilizes the land and produces protein to eat or sell. "Combined with water conservation and composting, and other best practices, you can see 50 percent increases in yields and 40 percent boosts in farm income," said Viertel.

Viertel is critical of overdependence on biotech approaches. Pointing out that such crops are optimized to rely on key inputs of specific herbicides and pesticides, but lead to decreasing yields after an initial improvement. Farmers are faced with spending more and more, to get the same output, and seeing their margins go to the agro-biz giants, said Viertel. Rejecting genetically engineered crops is a reflexive response among many in the agriculture arena, Clay pointed out, but it's unwise to write off such a powerful tool. "We've been cross-breeding, and selecting for traits for over 8,000 years. This isn't GMO [genetically modified organisms] but using genetic tools to identify naturally occurring traits in crops to breed the best plants," he said.

Mars, for example, knows that 20 percent of the cocoa trees in a given patch produce 80 percent of the crop. They paid to map the genome of cocoa trees to identify the best producing trees and then put the genetic data in the public domain. Their goal, said Clay, isn't to exploit the intellectual property, but to boost cocoa production. "They're a chocolate company. They want more chocolate," said Clay. World Wildlife Fund is working to map the genomes of 10 staple crops in Africa.

McDonald's vice president of sustainability, Bob Langert, asked what big food producers can do to make their supply chains more sustainable.

Viertel acknowledged that McDonalds has taken important steps recently, including an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida to curtail buying from exploitative tomato growers. "That kind of move sets the bar for other companies. You have an incredible role in purchasing. You can change the way beef is processed," said Viertel, "… or improve how potatoes, wheat, and tomatoes are grown."

Clay's advice to McDonalds focused on portion size. "Ads are always for bigger, more food, for less money," he said. "Make Happy Meals more nutritious of course, take away the packing and plastic toys," and sell them as a regular meal -- that's right-sized for the planet. "Call it a 'planet-sized' meal.' It doesn't mean taking away the other options. Just give people the option to buy less."

Tractor photo CC-licensed by wmmorrow.