How Do We Fix Our Food System? Experts Weigh in on This and Other Probing Questions

What would it take to solve climage change? Or to create sustainable ocean fisheries? What about supplying the world with clean energy? These and other probing questions garner contemplative responses from various experts, including physicist/ecologist Robert Socolow and Peggy Liu, cofounder of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, in the winter issue of Momentum, a publication of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

Below, journalist Greg Breining asks the World Wildlife Fund’s Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation, to discuss what it would take to grow enough food to meet human needs in 2050, while reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts. For more interviews, click here.

Jason Clay. Photo courtesy WWF

What would it take to grow enough food to meet human needs in 2050 while reducing environmental impacts of agriculture?
We have to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000. That’s the challenge. And if we want to do it without expanding further into the environment, we’re going to have to produce twice as much food on the same amount of land. Where do we invest our time and money?

Where do we?
We need to look at which crops have the most to gain from genetics. It’s not going to be corn and soybeans, because the big gains have been made there. We haven’t even really started work on palm oil, cassava, cocoa yams, sweet potatoes, peanuts, bananas or plantain, and sorghum—those are the ones that we really need to work on. And why? We know that the average production on an average farm in Costa Rica in bananas produces 20 times more calories than the average corn production in Iowa on the same unit of land.

Speaking of Iowa, where production is advanced, aren’t there gains to be made in Eastern Europe or Africa, where farmers are using practices from 50 years ago?
We know globally that the best practices, the best producers in the world, are 100 times better than the worst. But what we’re finding is that that’s actually true in what we think of as homogeneous places. In a three-county area of northeastern Nebraska, some producers use inputs 10 times more efficiently than others. The only way we can move the bottom is to take the principles of what we’re doing with the top producers, and begin to push the bottom—get them on a stepwise approach to improve production.

You’ve said stronger property rights for both farmers and biotech companies will boost production.
In Africa, probably 70 or 80 percent of the farmers don’t own the land they’re operating on. If you don’t actually have legal title, are you going to invest in planting a tree, putting a terrace on the property, leveling land for irrigation, doing any of a number of things that would make you sustainable over time? The answer is probably no.

I would argue it’s probably the same for a lot of the genetic stuff, too. If we expect the big seed companies to make the big breakthroughs in productivity, if anybody can just take their seeds and sell them to their neighbors, that’s a disincentive for the kind of research we all need.

Can we produce more by wasting less?
We are throwing out one of every three calories that are being produced. If we could eliminate waste between now and 2050, we’d only have to produce half as much new food. Why are we spending 90 percent of our research dollars on increasing productivity and 10 percent on reducing waste?

You’ve written that we should rehabilitate degraded land.

There’s a lot of land out there we should rehabilitate and produce far more without expanding at all. The farmers we talked to in Brazil buy land at 10 cents on the dollar when it’s degraded. Within five years, it’s worth 120 percent as much as the neighboring land, and it’s producing about 120 percent of the neighboring farms with only half the inputs because they’ve increased soil carbon so much.

You have suggested carbon markets as a way to grow more food. How would that work?
Anything farmers can do to increase soil carbon increases productivity, reduces input use and increases farmer income. We could create a carbon market where companies that buy food products also buy carbon from their commodities suppliers. Then we could have a mutually reinforcing system of carbon and commodities. We have to think how we can get these two-fers or three-fers—getting two or three benefits.

Here’s the thing. There’s no silver bullet that’s going to double food production. But if you add all these things up, we could probably produce twice as much as we need.
Related articles:

Food Cycle
The eternal food loop—harvest, prepare, savor, cleanup—has never been healthier, and better tasting, than it is right now.

The Low-Carbon Diet
Change your lightbulbs? Or your car? If you want to fight global warming, it’s time to consider a different diet.

Food Culture
Genetically modified agriculture holds both the promise of drought- and virus-resistant crops and the peril of unraveling the natural food chain. But like it or not, it’s one genie that’s already out of the bottle.

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”