2011-10-19

A Global Plan For Sustainable Agriculture

Use less land, eat less meat, waste less food. Sounds obvious, but these plans were developed after an intense examination of farm data and satellite images. Now it’s just a question of implementing it.

There’s a simple equation waiting to be solved. How do we feed 9 billion people by 2050 with roughly the same amount of land? An international team of researchers from Canada, the U.S., Sweden, and Germany has come up with a plan—using global models of agricultural systems and environmental impacts by combining crop data and satellite images from around the world—to double the world’s food production while reducing agriculture’s environmental impact.

There is already a push to make farming—the leading cause of global deforestation and, in some places, soil erosion—more sustainable so future generations have the same opportunities to grow food that we do. The prescription to make that a reality is elusive. "Lots of other scholars and thinkers have proposed solutions to global food and environmental problems, but they were often fragmented, only looking at one aspect of the problem at one time…[without] the numbers to back them up," says team leader and McGill University geography professor Navin Ramankutty, who worked on the study in Nature, in a statement. "This is the first time that such a wide range of data has been brought together under one common framework, and it has allowed us to see some clear patterns. This makes it easier to develop some concrete solutions for the problems facing us."

The five-point plan calls for some dramatic, but, the team says, achievable measures. These include halting land clearing for agriculture, now the primary cause of the world’s topical deforestation; improving food production yields in developing countries (well behind developed country averages) by about 60%; applying fertilizer and other agrochemicals strategically and sparingly; moving toward plant-based diets, and using less crops for animal feed or biofuel; and cutting waste, which now claims about one-third of food production.

The exercise offers a mathematical solution to feed the world without eliminating much of our remaining tropical forests or topsoil. But it is not a political one.

As with famines, most constraints on improving agriculture are political and social. Shifting the world’s agricultural system toward one that does not rely on clearing new lands or heavy fossil-fuel fertilizer application will require an unprecedented global effort. The next plan to fix our food supply will need to come from more than scientists.

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