National Geographic : 2014 May
#futureoffood 43 the environment, and it is rarely done to benefit the 850 million people in the world who are still hungry. Most of the land cleared for agricul- ture in the tropics does not contribute much to the world’s food security but is instead used to produce cattle, soybeans for livestock, timber, and palm oil. Avoiding further deforestation must be a top priority. Step two Grow more on farms we’ve got Starting in the 1960s, the green revolution in- creased yields in Asia and Latin America using better crop varieties and more fertilizer, irriga- tion, and machines—but with major environmen- tal costs. The world can now turn its attention to increasing yields on less productive farmlands— especially in Africa, Latin America, and eastern Europe—where there are “yield gaps” between current production levels and those possible with improved farming practices. Using high-tech, precision farming systems, as well as approaches borrowed from organic farming, we could boost yields in these places several times over. Step three Use resources more efficiently We already have ways to achieve high yields while also dramatically reducing the environ- mental impacts of conventional farming. The green revolution relied on the intensive—and unsustainable—use of water and fossil-fuel- based chemicals. But commercial farming has started to make huge strides, finding innovative ways to better target the application of fertilizers and pesticides by using computerized tractors equipped with advanced sensors and GPS. Many growers apply customized blends of fertilizer tai- lored to their exact soil conditions, which helps minimize the runoff of chemicals into nearby waterways. Organic farming can also greatly reduce the use of water and chemicals—by incorporating cover crops, mulches, and compost to improve soil quality, conserve water, and build up nu- trients. Many farmers have also gotten smarter about water, replacing inefficient irrigation sys- tems with more precise methods, like subsurface drip irrigation. Advances in both conventional modern mechanization, irrigation, fertilizers, and improved genetics can increase yields to help meet demand. And they’re right. Mean- while proponents of local and organic farms counter that the world’s small farmers could increase yields plenty—and help themselves out of poverty—by adopting techniques that im- prove fertility without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They’re right too. But it needn’t be an either-or proposition. Both approaches offer badly needed solutions; neither one alone gets us there. We would be wise to explore all of the good ideas, whether from organic and local farms or high-tech and conventional farms, and blend the best of both. I was fortunate to lead a team of scientists who confronted this simple question: How can the world double the availability of food while simultaneously cutting the environmental harm caused by agriculture? After analyzing reams of data on agriculture and the environment, we proposed five steps that could solve the world’s food dilemma. Step one Freeze agriculture’s footprint For most of history, whenever we’ve needed to produce more food, we’ve simply cut down for- ests or plowed grasslands to make more farms. We’ve already cleared an area roughly the size of South America to grow crops. To raise live- stock, we’ve taken over even more land, an area roughly the size of Africa. Agriculture’s footprint has caused the loss of whole ecosys- tems around the globe, including the prairies of North America and the Atlantic forest of Bra- zil, and tropical forests continue to be cleared at alarming rates. But we can no longer afford to increase food production through agricultural expansion. Trading tropical forest for farmland is one of the most destructive things we do to Jonathan Foley directs the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Jim Richardson’s portraits of farmers are the latest in his body of work documenting agriculture. George Steinmetz’s big-picture approach reveals the landscapes of industrial food.