Food production sits at the intersection of some of the most fraught concerns in the landscape of sustainability. Combining life-or-death issues of nutrition, with pressing concerns about the environment together with questions over the role of big industrial players in agricultural, food production sparks passions in boardrooms and dining rooms alike.
At BSR 2010, the tensions pulling at these issues surfaced in a standing-room-only session titled “Feeding the Future: What will it Take.”
World Wildlife Fund’s Jason Clay, who ran his family’s farm early in his life, laid out the challenge facing the world’s food production systems. Today, just 30 percent of arable land remains unfarmed. Yet over the last 10 years, that share of farmed land has grown by bout 0.6 percent per year. If this pace continues steadily, by 2050, all but 6 percent of untouched arable land will be put to use, meaning rain forests and other pristine environments will be imperiled.
“Suddenly there will be no biodiversity left. We will eat the planet. We have to figure out how to do more with less,” said Clay. To get there from here, without eating the planet, Clay estimates we’ll have to do about twice as much with every input — whether plants, or phosphorus, or water, or land.
Clay pointed out that water is another huge constraint. Today humans use half the fresh water supply on the planet, and of that, about 70 percent goes for farming. Put another way, he explained that it takes about 1 liter of water to produce each calorie of food we eat. So a person’s daily water consumption isn’t really the few liters they drink directly, but the 2,500 or 3,000 liters they eat each day.
Driving the food consumption is rising wealth. By 2050, Clay predicts, the world will have some 9 billion people, with 2.9 times more income on average than today. And in many of the largest, less developed countries, income could grow by 5 times per capita.
By practically any measure, wealth translates into healthier populations. But as newly wealthy populations boost their meat intake, the impact on food systems will be stressful, and enormous. A richer world will eat more protein, which demands much more energy, water and farming resources to grow. “We’re seeing it with pork in China and eggs in India,” said Clay.
To feed this richer, more populous world, Clay emphasized that no single strategy can do the trick, so we should be pursuing many at once. Reducing waste is among the best near term steps, he points out, given that one of every three food calories is wasted worldwide.
By simply eliminating wasted food, said Clay, “we could produce half as much additional new food we expect to need under the business as usual plan.” Sounds easy? But it runs against deeply ingrained practices in restaurants — where portion sizes are often too big — and shoppers’ love affair with fresh food. Transporting fresh food not only wastes about half the food, but uses more energy.