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The Limits of Farming

limits of farming

How will we feed 9 billion or more people by 2050?

“Where,” Gareth Cook asks in his op-ed in the Boston Globe, “on this ever more crowded planet, will we grow all of it?”

…Where will the food come from? Today, we use about a third of the planet’s land surface for agriculture, according to Jason Clay, a senior vice president at the fund who prepared the analysis. But when you subtract the areas that are already “taken’’ – deserts, mountains, lakes, rivers, cities, and highways – the figure rises to about 58 percent of the land. Take out the national parks and other protected areas, and food production already consumes 70 percent of available space. At current growth rates, Clay says, we will be nearing the planet’s capacity by 2050.

For every square inch of unclaimed land to be converted to farming would be an irreversible ecological disaster. But even if you are entirely deaf to green arguments, the problem is fundamental and unavoidable: At some point, the amount of land devoted to agriculture must stop expanding, because there is only so much land.

What we must do, then, is freeze the footprint of food – find a way to roughly double the productivity of farming, so that we can produce twice as much food on the same amount of land. It is a daunting technological and social challenge, and one that does not have a single solution, according to Clay’s report on the idea in a recent issue of Nature.

The most powerful tool is one that makes some environmentalists uncomfortable: genetics. The tools of modern biology have brought tremendous improvements in some crops, like corn, by breeding in traits like faster growth and increased resistance to drought and disease. But of the 10 crops that produce about three quarters of the world’s food, only one is on track to double production by 2050.

Cook points out the reality of organic farming won’t support an entire population. Growing organic generally takes more land, not less, to produce the same output of food.

I’d like to see someone explore some other ideas—for better or worse. For instance, what about a eating less meat, which is one of the most inefficient (both in energy and land consumption) forms of food?

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