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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

How to Feed the World While Earth Cooks

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harvestA conference on feeding the world must also feed itself. Having attended more than my share of such conferences, I can say that the norm is keynotes that rally the troops in favor of organics while said troops munch on tortilla or potato chips. Or there is the earnest vegan route. (This is not a problem that afflicts other disciplines. For example, a recent conference on energy featured a steak dinner at Smith & Wollensky's.)

For the New America Foundation's recent "Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks," the restaurant seems like it was chosen specifically to highlight those inherent tensions. Nora describes itself on an awning as "certified organic, exciting, seasonal, elegant dining, innovative, enjoy, creative, memorable, fresh, healthy, tasty." Nevertheless, steak retained its place on the menu, albeit locally sourced and "grass-finished." That allowed even the woman next to me, a food-justice advocate who campaigns for better food access for the poor, to feel comfortable ordering it.

And yet it takes 8 kilograms of feed to make one kilogram of cow, 4 kilograms of feed for one kilogram of pork and two kilograms of feed for one kilogram of chicken. "The number one thing you can do if you care about climate change is cut down on meat consumption," as Dawn Moncrief, executive director of meat reduction group A Well-Fed World, noted the following day. That is one thing the world is most definitely not doing. While the U.S. may have reached "peak meat," the emerging economies of China, India and elsewhere more than make up the difference

Back to the table: The clinking of knives and forks accompanied brief discursions on biochar (use charcoal in your soil and other handy tips from the 1800s), climate change (weird weather is upon us), and the soil crisis (20 kilograms of topsoil are lost for every 25 kilograms of corn produced in this country). The rivers of America run brown with our patrimony while farmers are enserfed to big business, while employing legions of actual serfs to service their fields, according to several of the speakers at the conference.

In fact, ethical conundrums abound when it comes to food. How to reconcile stewardship of the planet and the moral imperative to provide better food (and nutrition!) to the billions starving? How to reconcile a lifestyle founded on getting fat and a need to convince others not to widen their own girths? The central tenet of the discussion: this doesn't have to be a conflict, technology can save us from having to choose, whether through genetically modified crops or lab grown meat. But the cow cells grown in culture still have to eat something as well as nourish. So how do we convince others to eat less meat while still enjoying a nice steak?

Setting those social quandaries aside for a moment, there are at least six other major challenges facing agriculture in the 21st century, according to farmer Fred Kirschenmann, president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Those are: climate change, depleting natural resources, the loss of biodiversity, mining soil, aging farmers, and the end of cheap energy. As it stands, modern farming relies on a stable climate, endless supplies of fertilizers and water as well as being "enormously dependent on energy," Kirschenmann noted at the conference. "It takes 10 kilocalories of energy for every calorie of food we produce. It's the least efficient system we've ever had."

In essence, modern industrial farmers strip mine fields to produce a commodity, yellow stuff as I've heard corn called; they are not paid to manage the soil or other resources. The present system kills diversity—whether it be microbial biodiversity or actual crop diversity—while providing cheap food on the backs of cheap labor. Ninety-five percent of the agricultural land in Iowa produces just two crops: corn and soy. But other systems are on offer, whether it be organic methods or Argentina’s unique agriculture focused on reducing energy use in the field.

In a poll taken at the outset of the one-day meeting, convenience beat out "green as it gets," per the text message survey. And that highlights the bigger problem: if even food savvy folk require convenience above all then what hope is there to turn back the tide of agribusiness, which offers, above all, convenience?

To square that circle, the New America Foundation and its partners imported Midwestern experts (after all, farming is largely a boutique enterprise in the Northeast compared to the massive irrigated crop circles in the dry West or sprawling cornfields of the Middle West) and fed them a light breakfast of yogurt with granola and fruit. (At the energy conference, it was donuts.) Then they were turned loose on the obvious "silver bullet": genetic modification, or breeding on steroids.

Yet genetic techniques alone likely will not be enough to adapt crops to a changed world, though the science of genetic modification is also likely to be one of the tools needed to deal with drought, heat tolerance, yield and the like. "Some of those promoting improved seed as a silver bullet, it's a little bit like getting really high octane gas in a car whose tires are all punched out," noted Sara Scherr, president of EcoAgriculture Parners, a non-governmental organization striving to ensure that farming landscapes work for farmers and biodiversity. That's because more than a billion subsistence farmers around the world live with severe soil and water degradation and even the best, most advanced seeds need good soil and water to survive, let alone produce.

So perhaps a new round of domestication is needed? Salt- or heat-tolerant species could be turned to crops, repeating the trick of turning weedy inedible teosinte into maize, or the "most remarkable feat of genetic modification we ever accomplished," in the words of biologist Nina Fedoroff of Penn State University. But then there's the need to convince people to eat them (see GMOs).

Perhaps it's organics that will save us? A switch to organic methods would require both increased research into how to get the best yields from these techniques (and optimizing crops to respond to them) as well as a global re-education campaign. It's the switch from an industrial method (farmer as factory worker and supervisor) to an artisanal mode (farmer as, well, farmer). "Organic takes a lot of inputs—brain inputs," noted entomologist Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute and winner of the World Food Prize for his work to employ biological controls (wasps) on cassava-killing pests.

Of course, the bulk of the world's farmers already use organic practices—for lack of access to anything else, which suggests farming could be part of the solution to global poverty. A better route to more equitable economic development might be allowing these poorest farmers to sell their food on a global market, one undistorted by agricultural subsidies. They may even teach us something about how to adapt to climate change: the farmers of the Sahel region of Africa, to take but one example, have been adapting to weird weather for decades by planting trees to shade wilting crops and retain water. And the mobile phone revolution is helping to spread that hard-won agricultural knowledge, whether through cow care apps like iCow or simple market price reports. "People don't sit there waiting to die," noted geogrpaher Edward Carr of the University of South Carolina and a climate change advisor to U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who has spent years studying the ebb and flow of economic growth in Ghana. "Do not underestimate how smart these farmers are."

Another core message: we'll all need to be smart as we'll be asking the land to support producing food, feed, fiber and even fuels for us as well as serving as a home for whatever life can survive along with us. Already "half of the world's wild species are only present in agricultural lands," Scherr noted. "So agricultural lands need to play a role in habitat." Yet there are more people in jail than farming in the U.S., according to filmmaker Graham Meriwether, director of "American Meat," who was man enough to admit that he didn't know a potato grew underground until after an experience working at a friend's farm. That is how divorced the average American has become from the process that feeds us.

The lunch menu featured wraps: ham, turkey, avocado, grilled veggies, plus big bowls of fruit unlikely to have ripened in the metropolitan D.C. hinterlands in April. But local food is a distraction when it comes to climate change. The miles that food travels are insignificant compared to the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture generally, whether it be cutting down trees in Brazil or methane emissions from rice paddies in Asia. Or all that American beef (pork and chicken) production and its attendant methane. The ubiquitous plastic water bottles served to keep speakers' throats wet were more significant from a climate change perspective than the apples shipped across the continent and cooled en route, which is why liquid purveyors like Coke and Pepsi are trying to create plastics from plants.

In June in Rio, the world will mark the anniversary of pledges to curb climate change, preserve biodiversity and slow deforestation, among other environmental aims. "That promise has proved hollow," noted journalist Mark Hertsgaard, who convened the conference as a New America Foundation fellow. "My daughter and the other 2 billion young people born since Jim Hansen's testimony [on climate change in 1988] are fated to spend the rest of their lives coping with the hottest and most volatile climate humans have ever faced since we started practicing agriculture 10,000 years ago."

In fact, Kirschenman's challenges are not imminent, they are already here: food prices remain volatile, oil prices are high and extreme weather events wreak havoc on crops. But solutions are also already available or have been identified: turn annual crops into perennials. Turn waste (animal and, yes, human) into food. Focus on the soil, nurture its biodiversity, spike it with biochar and stop it from washing away (partially by stopping the wholesale slaughter of microbial life with pesticides). "We need more awareness of what is going on in the soil and the need to have a living soil," noted farmer Martin Kleinschitt of the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska non-profit focused on salvaging family farms.

As for me, I took a water bottle and an apple for the road—a trip by Acela train back to New York City. At least I saved the carbon dioxide emissions from yet another flight, even one powered in the future by biofuels from our farms. As long as humans garden on a grand scale—the practice we know as agriculture—there will be hope for our own climate sins. After all, growing plants pull CO2 from the atmosphere and, under the right conditions, can lock it away. That's what fossil fuels are made of in the end, and that will solve our fossil fuel pollution problem in the end, with us or without us. "We can do without automobiles, we can do with computers and, if we have to, we can do without underpants," Kirschenmann said. "We can't do without food."

Image: Courtesy of George Alexander / Flickr.com

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

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