This month’s issue of National Geographic (May 2014) marks the start of an eight-month journey into “The Future of Food” and centers on the critical problem of feeding nine billion people by 2050 as well as how the world will address this challenge. Kudos to the National Geographic team for its in-depth focus on this issue at such a pivotal moment in history. Editor Chris Johns notes that humanity would “do well to pay attention to how our food is produced and whether that is done in a sustainable, efficient, and safe manner.” Well said. We must pay attention.
This series begins with a very well-written piece by Jonathan Foley, who draws on some of the material presented in his excellent TED talk entitled “The other inconvenient truth.” Foley outlines five steps to address the challenge of feeding the exploding population, including 1) freezing agriculture’s footprint, 2) growing more on existing farms, 3) using our resources more efficiently, 4) shifting diets, and 5) reducing waste. He notes that pursuing these five steps could more than double global food supplies while simultaneously decreasing the environmental externalities associated with agricultural production. That theme of balance — producing enough food to equitably feed nine billion people in a sustainable manner that safeguards air, water, and other resources — is the heart of the challenge. Searchinger, Hanson, and others address this issue in the World Resources Institute’s four part-series on Creating a Sustainable Food Future — the first installment of which is appropriately titled “The Great Balancing Act.” In it, the authors note that meeting the challenge of feeding nine billion by 2050 requires balancing three key needs, which include 1) closing the gap between current food supplies and the food required in 2050, 2) changing Agriculture so that it contributes to inclusive economic and social development, and 3) reducing the negative impact of Agriculture on the environment and natural resources, specifically with respect to ecosystems, climate, and water. Like Foley, the authors correctly note that the failure to address the environmental impact of Agriculture will have serious consequences for our ability to meet expanded food requirements.
The critical term here is “balance” — a word that I use often. In addressing how to address the food challenge, Foley draws a link to politics — noting that polarization is the order of the day. Such a mindset is equally prevalent in the food sector, with production-oriented proponents of conventional agricultural techniques typically pitted against advocates of localized, organic-focused food systems. Tension typically prevents healthy debate between the two groups. We need to move away from the “either-or” mindset of food production to an inclusive discussion which focuses on drawing on the strengths (and minimizing the weaknesses) of both models. Simply stated, we need a more balanced approach. Finding that balance must start with healthy dialog along with a focus on the common end goal: successfully feeding nine billion by 2050 while ensuring that the Earth remains healthy enough to sustain the world population. Starting with a focus on the common goal shouldn’t be too difficult. Few will argue that excessive hunger, water shortages, and/or excessive pollution are good, or inevitable. Indeed, all are likely to ensure global instability. Agreement on the goal sets the framework for the “how” — and that process need not be divisive either.
At a recent IGEL event at the University of Pennsylvania, Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy (and author of Nature’s Fortune“) spoke of the need for more collaborative efforts, and less combativeness, in advancing efforts to resolve global environmental challenges. He made an excellent point in referring to the often incredulous queries from environmentalists asking why he was working with large corporations with traditionally poor environmental reputations. Tercek’s response: That’s exactly who we should be working with to create positive change. Tercek has it right. We need to focus on finding common ground rather than getting hung up on differences. Since no single solution is likely to solve the challenge of feeding nine billion by 2050, many views should be welcomed, discussed, and tested. In each of Foley’s five points listed above, for example, there is room for myriad ideas on how to achieve progress in expanding the food supply while minimizing environmental harm. The pressing need is to establish a collaborative, supportive framework for addressing the global food challenge with agreement on the end goal — and to do so with urgency. Such a framework for diverse ideas will encourage necessary experimentation and breed innovation across the globe.
Polarization ensures stagnancy. Collaboration breeds positive action. A continued “either-or” mindset will prevent us from solving the most pressing issue of our time. The one thing that we might all be able to agree on regarding the global food security challenge: failure is not an option.