Last week, I went to hear a lecture considering how we can double agricultural output worldwide in the coming decades to keep up with population growth. Professor Wilhem Gruissem's answer was, in a nutshell, GMOs.
This week, a piece in Nature, "Solutions for a cultivated planet" by Jonathan A. Foley et al., considers the same question with a bit more of a focus on the ecological devastation wrought by industrial agriculture. A few choice tidbits:
- "Agriculture is now a dominant force behind many environmental threats, including climate change, biodiversity loss and degradation of land and freshwater."
- "Agriculture is responsible for 30–35% of global greenhouse gas emissions, largely from tropical deforestation, methane emissions from livestock and rice cultivation, and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilized soils."
The article's authors suggest a few principles for expanding agricultural output without wrecking the planet:
- Stop expanding agriculture. Cutting down tropical forests in particular has only limited benefits in terms of world food yield. (I've read that the soils there are relatively poor.) Instead, the paper's authors would like to see us reduce the loss of already productive farmland (fewer subdivisions?) and improve yields on the land we're already using.
- Close yield gaps. In other words, make underperforming land perform better. To do it without environmental devastation, the authors argue that it will take "reforming conventional agriculture and adopting lessons from organic systems and precision agriculture."
- Increase agricultural resource efficiency. In other words, improve nutrient and water use so some places are not squandering these resources while others are starving because of a lack them. In water-scarce places, they recommend mulching and reduced tillage, and God bless.
- Increase food delivery by shifting diets and reducing waste. Less meat–in particular, less grain-fed beef. Less waste–the authors cite an FAO study that found that about one-third of the food produced is never eaten, but lost to waste, spoilage, or pests.
I'd like to add my own thought:
- Turn that wasted patch of sunny suburban sod into a vegetable garden. You'll enjoy it. It will be pretty. The food will taste great. You'll take some pressure off the planet.