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Feed the World, Save the Planet

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The world’s population will cross the 7 billion mark this month and is projected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050. So many more people, plus rising living standards, mean that global agriculture will have to double food production by mid-century.

Yet farming and ranching already exact a daunting toll on the environment: burn down rain forests to create more arable land, dump fertilizers onto fields that run off and choke life in rivers and oceans, emit volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, use up vast stores of freshwater for irrigation. How could we possibly produce 100 percent more food without wrecking the very land, water and air needed to grow that food?

An international team of researchers has devised a five-step plan that boldly claims to achieve both goals. The plan is explained by team leader Jon Foley from the University of Minnesota in the November 2011 issue of Scientific American, which will be available online on Tuesday, October 18 (a preview of the article is now live). Foley has also posted a series of six world maps that show how the plan could work. It includes some big gains in the U.S. heartland, not to mention South America, Europe, India, China and Africa.


Photo of wheat courtesy of USDA

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. GreenD 7:39 pm 10/12/2011

    The goals of the system are not correct- we need to change the goals from producing cheap and abundant food to producing healthy, sustainable food.

    Becoming ever more efficient, using greater mechanical, bio, and chemical technologies will only dig us into a hole.

    We need to realize that population growth cannot continue on this scale. I realize what this means, and obviously the implications for saying it on a national scale would be catastrophic, but we can’t avoid this fact.

    The food system needs to take a step back and realize what it is doing, but more importantly, consumers need to take a step back and look at their food. We can’t live on corn and soybeans forever.

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  2. 2. christinaak 8:54 pm 10/12/2011

    save the cheerleader, save the world (oh wait that was from a tv show). seriously, we have to cease behaving like enablers to the nations of the third world. we provide them with the fruits of modern medicine and handouts of food, without addressing the problem of the irresponsible lack of family planning. until the people of these nations recognize the need to drastically limit family size they will continue to suffer, and perpetuate an endless cycle of poverty. I think a tough love approach may be necessary to force these nations to institute the changes needed to bring about stability. we should make all assistance conditional on reduction in birth rates, and the governments of these countries must provide proof that they are taking steps to reduce population growth.

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  3. 3. cdrkln 12:47 am 10/13/2011

    The majority of articles I see on this subject consider the only resources available to humankind are those that are available here on Earth.

    However, humankind knows that there are unlimited resources off-planet to support an unlimited expansion of itself.

    Unconsciously then, it will expand beyond what Earth can support, whether or not the off-planet resources have been developed. The result may well be the unrecoverable deterioration of Earth. So, any discussion of the issue should include not only what is happening to Earth now, but also what needs to be done to accomodate humankind as it moves beyond Earth. And the time to do this is now.

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  4. 4. streepie 5:09 am 10/13/2011

    More efficiency might help – but… more importantly, population growth needs to be curbed, which only will take effect once the developing nations have attained a certain standard of living.
    Food production needs to become sustainable – and crops should be diversified again (move away from just corn, soybeans, wheat and rice).
    And diets need to be rethought as well – especially in the developed world – much of the corn goes towards raising beef. A move towards more sustainable food production would contribute to this as well.

    @cdrkin – we only have Earth to support us…

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  5. 5. quincybones 6:04 pm 10/13/2011

    “Feed the world, save the planet” Is this some kind of sick joke? So we can feed ANOTHER two billion. Then what?? Another two billion, then another . . . . and another . . . what sort of quality will this increasing horde of humans have to look forward to? Standing room only? And what about the ever compounding effects on our climate, resources and environment?

    A quickly buried politically incorrect study by the London School of Economics found contraception is five times cheaper as a means of preventing climate change than investing in green technologies. But as this was hugely controversial with religious groups,the UN took it off the agenda at the Copenhagen gabfest, pointing out that the population will control itself as countries develop, women become better educated and families shrink. And pigs will fly.

    That study also showed spending $10 on family planning would save one tonne of CO2. A similar reduction would require a $20 investment in tree planting, $40 in wind power, $80 in solar energy and $150 in hybrid vehicle technology. This is not about saving the planet,folks,but humanity itself. This planet will survive long after we have gone. And it won’t care a damn if it is populated by human beings or insects. When we are extinct, other species will replace us. If we don’t control our population natural forces will, as usual, take care of the situation. And with dreadful consequences for us all. This is not Malthusian hysteria, it is fact. As history has already shown us in past and recent years.

    Surely, as intelligent beings, we must accept this brutal truth, and put aside or adapt our religious and other prejudices. We need to urgently address the problem of overpopulation and its accompanying evils before it is too late. Not plan to try and feed even more of us. The global population is now 7 billion, and will rise to 11 billion by 2050.

    Jon Foley’s team has only part of the the answer. If our fertility rates continue, the threats are not only world climate change, but food and water shortages, conflict, and increasing human misery – no matter how “clever” we are. Does religion really believe this is God’s will? Why can’t we instead use the intelligence we were given, face the facts, and solve that problem as well as just looking at how we can feed all these billions before it is too late?

    There is a large dumb bird called an ostrich,which thinks it can hide by burying its head in the sand. The human race is currently displaying remarkably similar characteristics. Unfortunately, nature has its own ways of dealing with the problems staring us in our blinkered faces. They are called war, pestilence and famine.

    Surely, we can and MUST do better.

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  6. 6. bgcmarket 7:34 pm 10/14/2011

    this is a comment for christinaak tough love huh ?

    I agree that they shouldn’t be allowed to procreate if they are not in a healthy environment. But, tough love. Really, so you would have these poor children of the world die , because they were born on the wrong continent, is that what you suggest. Take a good look in the mirror tonight and envision that starving child dieing of malnutrition and starvation, then I want you to take it’s plate of food away, and say tough love is what you need. I hope you sleep well.. as for the rest of us you can join me in the answer to ending hunger and malnutrition in this innocent children @
    sweet dreams christinaak that’s why are world is so screwed up, a little philanthropy as a species will go a long way maybe we should all try it
    Brad C

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  7. 7. dhrosier 11:52 pm 10/18/2011

    We HAVE played God for more than 150 years. We have defeated God’s plan that Earth have checks and balances. The “checks” are too painful and too costly, so we have done a great job of minimizing them – major diseases are at the point of elimination, and today we are feeding many times the number of people than we were feeding 150 years ago. The balance is not starvation, we have striven to eliminate that which has contributed to the problem today. The balance is passive contraception.

    Bill Frist announced a few weeks ago that more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 had died of starvation in (Somalia as I recall). Every one of those 29,000 children, and thousands over age 5 who starved to death, were conceived after the drought and famine started killing people.

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