Photograph by Paul Joseph
Photograph by Paul Joseph

5 Ways to Feed the World

How will we feed 9 billion people? Glad you asked.

Tomorrow National Geographic will host Food: A Forum from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. followed by a weekend hackathon on feeding a planet groaning under the weight of 7 billion—and quickly growing to 9 billion—people. My top five ways to ease the way:

Update and Rethink Food Law

Focusing on food law as a singular study of the modern food system would examine the multiple levels on which food—the growing, procuring, transporting, distributing, cooking, serving, and cleaning of it—affect our planet. Far beyond traditional regulatory work that falls under “food and drug law,” negotiating the best body of law to ensure good food for 9 billion is currently the most interdisciplinary legal work around. Let’s examine all laws relating to food as one body of work (and take it one step further to examine how many nations’ food laws work with one another to feed the planet).

Public health is a helpful comparator—when it started as an independent field of study, experts didn’t relegate scholarship to clean drinking water and vaccines. Public health has grown to incorporate seatbelts, bike helmets, emergency preparedness and, of course, obesity and nutrition, among dozens of other issues, and has changed the lives of billions over decades by becoming a cohesive discipline. Food law and food lawyers (as I proudly identify) can have an equally far-reaching impact. A new institution now growing food law’s edges, the Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy at UCLA, is an exciting harbinger.

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Photograph courtesy of North Charleston Farmer’s Market

Create and Support Food Hubs

Food hubs are central marketplaces—real or virtual—where farmers and producers can reliably sell their goods directly to consumers. Grocery stores work best for the biggest farmers and producers because grocery stores have a reliability requirement—they cannot ever be out of bananas or apples or yogurt and need to know that the farmers with whom they contract can deliver in whatever quantities the store needs. (Incidentally, when did we decide apples in the grocery store were guaranteed right after death and taxes?)

Food hubs involve local farmers who are more subject to the unreliable vicissitudes of climate and seasonality so there may be no apples—and there will never be a local banana where I live in Washington, D.C. But food hubs create a sustainable local market for agriculture that is not dependent on fossil-fuel, cross-country, refrigerated transportation. Regardless of one’s politics, a system of buying a D.C. family’s food from 3,000 or more miles away is not sustainable 50 years from now (and perhaps much sooner). Food hubs also encourage urban gardening, which has taken hold in Beijing, Paris, and New York alike with revolutionary possibilities. (See “Factory Farming Is Not the Best We Have to Offer“)

Embrace Technology

I am a blueberry picking, heirloom-bean worshipping, real-maple-syrup buying old-school food lover. I value food traditions that make eating more meaningful, fulfilling, and magical. But I know that technology will make food procurement more efficient, which will ease the burden of feeding 9 billion. So my work includes the careful study of ensuring that technology broadens and deepens our food world, not narrows it. Producing a lot of food is unsatisfying if we fear food transparency (knowing how our food got to our plate), whether revealing the treatment of workers or animals or use of chemicals. Our bodies are made up of the food we put in them, and we are only as high-quality as what we eat. (See “High-Tech Tapping: Making Maple Syrup With Vacuums“)

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Photograph by Cristian Bortes

Cook at Home

This year Americans will spend an estimated $1.8 billion per day on eating out, according to National Geographic’s May issue. None of those restaurants can resell your quarter-eaten chicken parm. Learn to cook. If you know how to cook, teach someone else, preferably a child so he can look beyond recipes to think about how ingredients go together, use whatever is in the fridge in unconventional ways, and lessen food waste. Your ancestors did it and it’s in your DNA. The smiley lady on TV can do it. Your dumb cousin can do it. You can cook.

Spend as Much Money on Good Food as You Can Possibly Afford

This is the part when people usually chase me with pitchforks and torches. I know, spending money hurts for both individuals and for nations. But investing in good food and the sustainable systems that produce it are every single person’s and nation’s best daily practice to fund a revolution to feed 9 billion. I frequent farmers’ markets and often hear grumblings of “why is this asparagus $2 more per pound than at the grocery store,” or while at the grocery store overhear complaining that organic strawberries are “more expensive but not healthier” than conventional ones—from people carrying Louis Vuitton purses.

I get it—when the stuff looks the same, why should it cost more? (And I’m not even getting into flavor. Of course it tastes better, but you probably already know that.) Spending more on sustainably grown food, particularly grown by people you trust, encourages a healthier planet. The day you purchase food that reflects the cost of a healthy food system and choose to internalize the true cost of good food, is the day you’re closer to sustainably feeding 9 billion (and you’ve likely just purchased a wildly more delicious product). Buy substandard food today, and the good food might not be there tomorrow.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.