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Small Changes for Big Results: How to Feed 3 Billion More People

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If you spend any time around food-policy scholars, you’ll soon hear two phrases repeated frequently, with equivalent amounts of dread. One is a year: 2050. The other is a number: 9 billion. The first is the date by which the population of the globe is expected to grow to the second.  

The world’s population is 7 billion now; and it took thousands of years to build agriculture to its current reach. Developing the capacity to feed another 2 billion in just 35 years appears to be an impossible task: The amount of land already devoted to agriculture has overstressed the environment, and much of what remains is desert, forest or city, not capable of being reclaimed for growing food. It seems that something—the way we raise crops and animals, the chemicals and drugs we use, the foods we choose to eat—has to give.

Well: probably so. But An important and little-discussed part of envisioning the future involves examining our current system of food production, and asking what smaller changes could be made that might push the world toward better results.

A paper in last week’s edition of the journal Science, “Leverage points for improving global food security and the environment,” investigates just that question. The authors conclude that reforms in a few key areas, on certain specific crops, could feed an extra 3 billion people while reducing damage to the environment.

“What we are facing is a two-fold challenge,” lead author Paul West, co-director of the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, told me. “We have to both grow more food, and do it in a more sustainable way.”

To begin their analysis, the team zeroed in on 16 foods that account for the most calories consumed worldwide, plus cotton, the most common crop for clothing and fiber. Together, those 17 crops occupy 95 percent of the irrigated agricultural land in the world, while consuming 92 percent of irrigation water and 70 percent of the fertilizer.

Compiling that information, and adding in data harvested from satellite maps and computer models. they identified what they call “leverage points” in three categories of actions: producing more food on land that is already cultivated; growing crops more efficiently; and using more of what is grown while reducing waste.

Here are some of their findings:

•  Crop yields in some parts of the world are 50 percent below the plants’ known potential.

•  60 percent of nitrogen fertilizer and almost 50 percent of phosphorus now used on crops are unnecessary.

•  Up to 15 percent of irrigation water does not reach the crops it is intended for.

•  From 30 percent to 50 percent of vegetable and grain crops, and also meat, are wasted either by never reaching markets or by being discarded too early.

West said that if those leaks in the pipeline of food production were sealed up, really significant gains could be made:

•  Reducing food waste just in the United States, India and China could feed an additional 400 million people.

•  Improving crop yields in Africa and Asia could feed 850 million more.

•  And if the crops now used to feed livestock were diverted to feed people directly, that would free up enough calories for 4 billion people.

By zeroing in on key crops, the study makes clear that though we imagine that we need a global transformation in agriculture, we could create significant change by focusing on just a few foods in just a few parts of the world.

“I think of this as adjusting the to-do list,” West told me. “If you have a list with 100 things on it, then either everything is important or nothing is important, and only a few things—the easiest, quickest things—get done. This allows us to see the items that truly would have a global effect.”

One challenge, he said, will be matching the changes needed in agriculture with the cultural values that brought food production to its current wasteful state. One example: whether and how much meat production can be changed. The industrialized West loves meat, and the developing economies of the global East and South clearly view a Western-style diet as a prerogative of their increasing status. Yet livestock raising consumes pasture, water, and especially crops: It takes 33 calories of grain to create a single calorie of beef.

The obvious, and often-rejected, answer is to move more of the world toward meat-free diets. But West said a more nuanced approach might be to encourage meat-eating nations to move toward other meat sources. Chicken, pork and fish—even dairy and eggs—represent more efficient calorie conversion than beef does, on the order of 7 or 8 to one.

“Most people say an extreme shift in diet isn’t possible,” West said. “But what we highlight is that even small changes in diet can have a huge effect on how many calories could be made available worldwide.”

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