Facing Planetary Enemy No. 1: Agriculture

Oct 12, 2011
Originally published on October 13, 2011 7:43 am

For the past 200 years, ever since Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population, big thinkers have been wondering whether Earth-dwellers will eventually run out of food.

Today, a global group of scientists released a fresh look at the question. They add a different, environmental twist to it. Can we feed the world without destroying the environment?

It's a good question, because agriculture is probably the single most destructive thing that humans do to the earth.

Consider: Cropland and pasture now cover 40 percent of our planet's land surface; farming consumes nearly three-quarters of all the water that humans use for any purpose; farming accounts for a third of all the emissions of greenhouse gases that humans release into the environment. (Those greenhouse emission come from clearing forests or grassland for crops, the emissions of methane from rice paddies, and the conversion of nitrogen fertilizer into nitrous oxide — a powerful greenhouse gas.)

That's bad enough, but Jonathan Foley from the University of Minnesota, who led this new analysis, says it's likely to get worse. Demand for food is expected to double over the next forty years. Are we truly, to quote environmentalist Bill McKibben, facing the "end of nature"?

According to the new study, not necessarily. But avoiding mass deforestation and food scarcity is going to take some very big changes. Briefly: Big investments in food production in places (think Ukraine and Uganda) where current farm land isn't producing as much food as it could; much more efficient use of water and fertilizer; less wasted food; and (controversy alert!) eating less meat. About 40 percent of the planet's crops, according to this study, currently are fed to animals.

Unfortunately, the paper does not really explain how this will happen. There's no global dictator who can, for instance, abolish feedlots where corn is fed to cattle.

What we have instead of a dictator is the global marketplace, setting prices for land, corn, meat, and everything else. Those prices drive decisions by farmers. But Thomas Hertel, an economist at Purdue University, says those markets can help solve our planetary problem — especially if we step in to make those markets work better.

For example, governments can put a price on forests, making it really, really expensive to cut down trees for crops. They can charge more for water or fertilizer, discouraging waste.

But when food gets scarce, Hertel says, markets do respond. Prices go up, farming gets more profitable, and farmers grow more food. Markets will balance supply and demand for food, Hertel says.

But at what cost? Will food get really expensive, driving down consumption and really hurting the world's poorest people? Right now, that's one of the biggest, most interesting questions that agricultural economists are debating.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

When it comes to the future of human life on Earth, there's no more basic question than will there be enough food for everybody? Well, a group of scientists just took a fresh look at that question, and their conclusions are both comforting and disturbing. NPR's Dan Charles with our Planet Money Team has this report.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Before Jonathan Foley became an expert on global food production at the University of Minnesota, he was an astronomer.

DR. JONATHAN FOLEY: So, you know, take an astronomer and have him think about farming, and this is what you get.

CHARLES: What you get is a look at farming on the whole planet as if you were staring at Earth from outer space. When you do that, the thing that jumps out at you, Foley says, is this: Pretty much, the single most destructive thing that we humans do to our planet is grow food.

FOLEY: Agriculture and our croplands and pastures uses up 40 percent of all the land on Earth. It's 70 percent of the water being consumed on the planet. It's about a third of all the greenhouse gas emissions.

CHARLES: That's shocking. A third of all greenhouse gases, you say, are coming from farming?

FOLEY: Conservatively, a third. Probably more.

CHARLES: And then you realize it's going to get worse. Another two or three billion people are coming. Plus, a lot of people are getting richer, which means they eat more. And they eat more meat, which in turn means you have to grow even more crops to feed those animals.

FOLEY: It turns out that we would have to double the world's food supply by 2050 to keep up with that demand.

CHARLES: Double the world's food supply?

FOLEY: That's right. What it took 10,000 years to build up to, we have to double in the next 40 years or less.

CHARLES: Foley and a group of collaborators from around the world took a close look at whether this is even possible. In a study released today by the scientific journal Nature, they say it is, if we do five things. First, stop cutting down forests to grow crops. Second, instead of that, focus on land that's already being used to grow food but isn't very productive.

FOLEY: Eastern Europe, for example, is not producing much food right now, but it could. Much of Africa could be growing much more food than it is today.

CHARLES: An average acre of land in Africa currently produces only about a sixth as much grain as an acre in Illinois. Third, use water more efficiently, also fertilizer. Fourth, in rich countries, don't throw away so much food. In poor countries, keep it from spoiling before it gets to the people who need it. Fifth, and this may be the most controversial thing in this paper, eat less meat.

Right now, a third of all crops in the world go to feed cattle, chickens and pigs. If we do all that, Foley says, there will be enough food for everybody, and we won't have to destroy even more of our planet. But we really do need to do all that.

FOLEY: It is impossible to keep feeding the world the way we are and do it sustainably. You know, if we're going to feed the world and sustain the environment, we have to get on this path.

CHARLES: Now, Foley gave a presentation on this topic recently to an academic audience. And Thomas Hertel from Purdue University got up and said, basically...

THOMAS HERTEL: What about economics?


CHARLES: Hertel says the problem with this paper is it doesn't really show us how to get on this different path.

HERTEL: It's all well and good to tell people they shouldn't consume meat. But in the end, consumer preferences will prevail. And that's what's driving the increased production of some of the feed grains.

CHARLES: Farmers all over the world grow whatever earns them the most money. Hertel says economic forces created the kind of farming we have today, and the trick will be to use those same economic forces to help change it.

For instance, taxes or regulations can make it really expensive to clear forests for agriculture or to overdose fields with fertilizer. But when it comes to figuring out how to grow enough food to feed everybody or decide how much grain gets fed to animals instead of directly to people, it's still going to come down to markets, he says. Supply and demand. When food gets scarce, prices do rise, and farmers respond by growing more.

Also, they'll be motivated to do a couple of things on Foley's list: Get more productive and more efficient. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.