Farmers break new ground to feed a growing world

David Festa

The way we produce food is getting a lot of attention these days, and for good reason. If current projections hold, we’ll have 9 billion mouths to feed by 2050 – 2 billion more than we have today.

Throughout history, when we’ve needed to expand food production, we’ve gone to nature’s vast storehouse and made withdrawals. In doing so, we’ve filled wetlands, dried up rivers, degraded habitat and polluted our air and water.

We’ve already drawn down nature’s account to dangerously low levels, and we still need to produce more.

If we’re going to meet growing needs for food and water, we’re going to have to do it in ways that not only stop harming the environment, but actually improve the ecosystems that serve us.

Business as usual just isn’t going to cut it.

Farmers show the way 

During the past decade, we’ve been in quiet conversations with farmers and ranchers about how to facilitate this transformation. As we’ve walked their land, we’ve seen some encouraging things.

  • Ranchers in Texas demonstrated that it can be profitable to raise cattle alongside endangered species like the golden cheeked warbler.
  • Farmers throughout the Midwest are teaching us that it is possible – and profitable – to reduce fertilizer use while maintaining or increasing yields.
  • In California, we’re learning from growers such as Woolf Farming and Processing how to optimize irrigation efficiency to reduce water use and increase profit margins. If you spread ketchup on your burger, chances are you’ve tasted Woolf’s tomatoes. The family business processes tomatoes grown on 20,000 acres in the state’s drought-stricken Central Valley, where maximizing irrigation efficiency isn’t auxiliary but necessary.

A common thread running through these efforts is that they build up nature’s bank account by eliminating unnecessary withdrawals and making strategic deposits.

Feeding the world takes all-out effort 

If we can scale up these practices and make them business as usual, it will go a long way toward increasing the resilience of the natural systems that sustain us.

Of course, these practices alone won’t solve the bigger challenge of closing the projected gap between food supply and demand in ways that build up nature’s bank account. When it comes to meeting the great food challenge of this century, there is no silver bullet.

In addition to using agricultural resources more efficiently, we’ll need to think about food waste, genetics, distribution, diets and more.

That looks to us like silver buckshot.

This post was first published on EDF’s Growing Returns blog.

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