How Do We Feed a Growing World?

Less meat, higher yields, open minds, and the right incentives are among the realistic solutions experts see.
A boy digging an irrigation channel in a corn field in Nigeria. (Photo: Michael S. Lewis/Getty Images)
Dec 12, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Jeanette Marantos is a freelance writer and reporter based in Southern California. She has worked as a journalist, an author, and a teacher.

So here’s the problem: About 10 billion people are expected to show up for dinner in 2050, and we’re already struggling to feed the 7 billion people at the table today. How can we realistically produce and distribute enough nutritious foods without further depleting our soils, poisoning our water, choking our landfills, overusing resources, and otherwise harming our environment?

With just 34 years to go, food experts seem united on only one point: The solutions are about as diverse as the challenges.

“I heard this years ago—‘There is no silver bullet, just a lot of silver BBs,’ ” said Kai Robertson, an independent consultant for corporate food sustainability issues based in Washington, D.C. “This will require a collective effort of multiple actors, from large corporations to small companies to governments and individuals. Everyone has a role to play.”

We talked to a sampling of academics and experts about what techniques and trends can realistically help make sure everyone gets a share at the table. Here’s what they had to say.

Higher Yields, Not More Farmland

The consequences are too dire if we continue to convert natural lands to agricultural lands, said David Still, a plant geneticist at Cal Poly Pomona. Cutting down forests and other natural areas worsens climate change, threatens watersheds, and further endangers wildlife.

“We’ve already created a loss of biodiversity,” Still said. “The best lands are being lived on and farmed on right now. If we expand, we’ll have to move to marginal lands, which makes it harder to produce crops.”

Thus, “we’re much better off improving yields,” said Kent Bradford, a plant scientist and director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis. In developing regions like Africa, that means providing more fertilizer and bringing in irrigation and mechanization, he said.

It also means embracing technology, and that includes genetic modification. “Is it harmful? You’ll never get a scientist to say never, but is it safe? Most scientists will tell you yes,” Bradford said. “We’ve had genetically modified grain for 20 years now, and we’ve had billions of chickens and cows fed almost entirely on these foods, with not a hint of change in their health…. I don’t know how to do a bigger experiment. There’s no rationale for it to be considered a health problem.”

Too Much Meat

As developing nations become wealthier, people clamor for more poultry, beef, and pork. But livestock production already accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land, and 30 percent of the land surface of the world, according to Livestock’s Long Shadow, a report from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

Livestock are also one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and their waste is a major pollutant of freshwater. Most of the 90 million acres of corn grown in the United States goes to feeding animals, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. “You might ask, How is that feeding the world right now?” asked Stephen Jones, a professor at Washington State University–Mount Vernon and a researcher at the school’s Bread Lab.

“If you take the four biggest global crops—corn, soy, rice, and wheat—we already produce all the calories and essential amino acids the world needs to be healthy in 2050; we just don’t produce them in a way people like to eat them,” said Nick Halla, chief strategy officer for Impossible Foods, which is one of several companies aiming to create mass-market, plant-based products meant to satisfy meat eaters. Tyson Foods, the country’s largest meat processor, just took a 5 percent stake in another such company, Beyond Meat.

“Animals are a very inefficient conversion system [for nutrients]. We have to fundamentally rethink how we understand foods and create a much more sustainable global food system,” Halla said.

Shopping Local Not the Answer

Relying on only locally grown food is a nice idea for people who can afford it but not a practical solution for feeding the world, said Bradford. “I wish someone would just sit down and do the math. I did it just for San Francisco, and you’d have to turn all the land around the city into subscription farms,” he said. “Half the people in the entire world live in cities now, and the idea we can provide enough food around cities and get it to them through some direct farmer-consumer method is crazy.”

Many citizens of developing countries are forced to “shop local” because they don’t have the roads, storage, and other infrastructure to transport food in or out of their region, Bradford said. “We don’t experience it here because we have a transportation system that allows you to get your food from someplace else if we have a local drought. But in those countries, if you’re dependent on local food, you have a drought, you get hungry, and you die.”

This is not to say those small, local farms should go away, said Jones. It’s going to take all kinds of farming to get everyone fed. “If you have a couple in their 20s who are growing 10 acres of organic or whatever, they are helping to feed their community,” he said.

The Big Picture

The vast majority of scientists don’t believe it’s possible to feed the world organically because yields are about 20 percent less than those resulting from conventional practices, said Bradford.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no benefit. Dave Hedlin, a farmer in Washington’s fertile Skagit Valley who uses organic methods on half of his 500 acres, warns against blanket dismissals of organic practices.

“We can’t feed the world if we’re not good stewards of our soil,” Hedlin said. “Can we feed the whole world organically? A far better question is, Can we be better stewards of the world’s soils and still feed the world? My wife, Serena, and I are much better conventional farmers because of our organic certification. You have to take care of the soil. You have to take care of the water. If you’re not doing those things, you’re just mining anyway. You can do that for a year or two, but you can’t do it forever.”

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Wasted Food

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly a third of all the food produced in the world gets lost or wasted. “Every year consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tons) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons),” according to the FAO. Using all the ugly bits as well as buying only what we eat would have enormous impact.

Food waste takes a different form in developing countries, where farmers lack cold storage, grain bins, or adequate roads to bring in fertilizers or take their crops to market. “The answers are simple,” said Jones. “It’s not like we don’t know how to make a grain bin. We’re going to have to make changes.” But fixing such problems in poor countries is challenging. “The problem is, we tolerate misery on the planet right now.”

The Right Incentives

Obesity and malnutrition are on the rise and creating expensive health problems all over the world. Educational programs have failed in getting people to change what they eat, said Jack Winkler, a nutrition policy expert formerly with London Metropolitan University.

He advocates a two-pronged approach: getting corporations to quietly reduce the sugar, salt, and fat in their processed foods and getting governments to change the crops that get subsidies to boost healthy foods and make crops like sugar more expensive and scarce.

Hedlin agrees. “If we were doing our job, it would be cheaper to buy a carrot than a Twinkie,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that the government should get into everybody’s face and tell them what to eat, but we shouldn’t be subsidizing things that aren’t good for us.”

Roles for Everyone

The scale of these issues can make them seem overwhelming, but there are several things people can do to make a difference, these experts say.

Some are relatively simple, such as planting vegetables and choosing foods that have less impact on the earth and our health. For instance, said Bradford, “we could cut our animal consumption back to only eating animals that graze on grasslands,” freeing up farmlands to grow more food for people.

Governments could stop working at cross purposes, subsidizing and discouraging consumption of the same crops. We all could be smarter. Consumers “are a little schizophrenic,” Robertson said. They claim to want healthy food choices but tend to purchase the processed, empty-calorie foods that are pushing up obesity rates around the world.

We can also be open to new science in agriculture and at least listen to all sides of new ideas and controversial technologies, said Still. “That’s the part of science the public does not understand—scientists actually love calling other scientists out,” he said. “Scientists are trained to be skeptical, and if you are wrong, they do not hesitate to show you that you’re wrong.”

Finally, Robertson said, individuals need to remember the power we wield as consumers.

“Companies can reduce the amount of sugar and salt in their products—we have a public health crisis, and they really need to do that—but at the end of the day, the companies do what the customer asks for,” she said. “We have to take personal responsibility to be as healthy as we can be. If people speak up and push, the companies will respond.”