The biggest challenge facing the planet? It could be finding enough food to eat. Based on current trends, we're going to be running awfully short.
A new report from the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, forecasts the world will need to produce 69% more calories by 2050, given a global population of 9.6 billion people. That's what's called the "food gap." It's also a lot of rice, maize, and meat (or protein-substitute, depending on your preference).
The problem is, societies can't rely on the old tactics of increasing yields and expanding agricultural land, WRI says. Sufficiently boosting production alone would require a faster rate of growth than between 1962 and 2006. That would mean a period of unprecedented growth—40% more in the case of milk and meat.
Finding more farmland also isn't the answer. Crops and pasture already take up half of everything not covered by desert, ice, or water, and there are serious consequences to setting aside more. Agriculture already accounts for 13% of greenhouse gas emissions, or 6.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually. Taking a business-as-usual approach could more than double that output, the report says.
To address these challenges, the WRI suggests a "menu of solutions." Below are five we selected:
From farmers storing crops incorrectly to consumers tossing rotten broccoli, the world throws away about a quarter of all calories produced. Reducing waste could close up to a fifth of the "food gap" between now and mid-century. That will mean different things in different countries. In the U.S. and Europe, more than half of losses are in our kitchens. In the developing world, waste is more likely further up the supply chain. Cereals account for nearly two-thirds of waste, so are a good area to target.
Though meat and milk are good for you, animals products are very inefficient form of food, as only about a tenth of what we feed livestock is returned in the form of food calories. Rising meat consumption—forecast to grow 82% by 2050—is a big reason for the WRI's food worries. But then encouraging people to eat less meat could be an effective way out of these problems, too. Cutting down on beef, which uses a lot of resources, but produces relatively little protein, would also be a good idea. "Shifting just 20% of the anticipated future global consumption of beef to other meats, fish, or dairy would spare hundreds of millions of hectares that provide carbon storage and other ecosystem services," the report says.
The WRI suggests greater attention paid to places where crops yields fall below what has proven to be possible in other parts of the world. It then recommends giving farmers the means to catch up, including greater access to fertilizer, seeds, and finance. It also recommends reaching out to as many women farmers as men. "As women produce between 60% and 80% of food crops in developing countries, such an approach should begin with efforts to close the gender gap in agriculture which is perpetuating cycles of poverty and hunger,” Helen Clark, administrator of United Nations Development Program, writes in the report.
Farmers have long relied on seed improvements, either varieties they cultivated themselves or bought in from scientifically based groups. That needs to continue, the WRI says, and that includes genetic modification. "Genetic engineering can play a role, particularly because improved techniques now allow insertion of genes in particular locations, reducing the amount of trial and error necessary to produce crops with improved traits (such as pest or drought resistance)," the report says. "In the short run, genetic engineering can most help by enabling faster breeding responses to new pests."
Ruminant animals like cows and sheep produce almost half of all agricultural greenhouse emissions (the level of which could be greater than previously understood). Improving feeds, so that animals digest matter more efficiently, could cut emissions per pound of meat or milk in developing regions by two-thirds, the report says. It might also be possible to genetically engineer more efficient cows, as we discussed here.
When viewing these ideas together, the "food gap" seems solvable—but not without a massive mobilization.
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