10 or So Things You Should Know About the Future of Feeding the World

NASA Goddard Photo and Video/CC BY 2.0

There is widespread agreement that the global food system—a clumsy euphemism for the incredibly complex international network of farmers, distributors, and retailers that attempts to feed 7 billion human beings—is a broken-down mess. It generates too much waste, leaves too many hungry, creates too much pollution, and is too unjust to the laborers who work the hardest to keep its gears turning.

Like I said; a mess. Predictably, there is intense disagreement over how to clean it up. Especially when you throw climate change into the mix—rising global temperatures have already begun to transform geographies around the world, leaving once-fertile land arid in some regions, swamping others with too-frequent deluges, and generally making life for farmers more unpredictable.

So how will we eat in a warmer, wilder, more populous world, say, 40 years from now? And how can we do it responsibly?

There are ideas.

Last week, in Washington D.C., the Future Tense project produced 'Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks', an event that gathered food-obsessed brains from all walks to expound upon the future of sustenance. Activist farmers, GMO-boosting scientists, USDA chiefs, food justice leaders, lab meat-growing professors, and organic farm-loving filmmakers filled the hall, and held forth on what and how we'll be eating tomorrow.

The event blew by like a whirlwind (6 hours, 15 minutes for lunch, dozens of speakers), and so, I will present it to you as such. A compendium of a whirlwind: the best and most interesting tidbits from a day packed full of them (packed so full, I should add, that I couldn't possibly catch it all, what with having to duck out to grab interviews and, sure, to relieve myself occasionally), presented in no particular order.

Eat, eat!

"We need a complete overhaul of our agriculture system," Sara Scherr, the president of EcoAgriculture Partners, said early on. We need to think beyond monocultures and cash crops and about the variety of services the ecosystems farmlands provide. We must farm sustainably. We must preserve biodiversity.

But there are so many people, and there are so many hungry. And genetically modified crops like the herbicide-tolerant soybean "are the wave of the future." They allow farmers to engage in no-till farming, which decreases soil erosion and saves time, says Nina V. Federoff, the biotech pioneer and science adviser to Condoleeza Rice. Federoff's position, which will be totally uncontroversial to environmentalists everywhere, is: Keep on keeping on with GMOs. Elsewhere, Federoff has discussed agricultural intensification, and her goal of reducing regulations on GMOs, saying "The most productive facilities I’ve seen – particularly very modern greenhouse facilities – can grow five to 10 times as many vegetables and fruits as open-field agriculture, using sometimes as little as a tenth as much water."

[Scherr disputed Federoff's claims, noting that GMOs may make crops more productive, but they damage biodiversity]

Onward, and familiar themes abound: The world must consume less meat, it is too resource intensive. You knew that—but I like this: Dawn Moncrief, of A Well-Fed World, said that aiming for zero meat production is fantasy, and that we need to focus on making gains anywhere we can. "When you eat out, you're eating factory farmed meat," she said. "Go vegetarian when you eat out."

"We have more people in jail than we have farming," said Graham Meriwether, whose film American Meat explores the Pollan-sian disconnect between modern youth and farming, and argues the merits of sustainable meat production. The average age of a farmer in the U.S. is over 60. We'll need more farmers if we're to have sustainably grown meat and productive farms aside from the factory behemoths—and those factory farm behemoths are one of the prime producers of greenhouse gas emissions.

But wait; fret not about livestock pollution and methane farts, for the future of food is in the laboratory. So argues Gabor Forgacs, a professor at the University of Missouri, who has not only engineered lab-grown meat, but he has eaten it. And he has lived to tout it as the solution to the world's meat problems. He endorsed his meat, claiming that it "tasted neutral", and that it requires much less energy and feed input to produce.

Farmers must practice resilience in the face of a warming world and tough economic conditions, says Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer and agri-intellectual. Farmers should be planting crops that offer more consistent yield year-round, planting crops with deeper roots that are more resilient to changes in weather, etc.

Oh yes, and we must be wary: Monoculture crops will be even more vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change.

And what about policy? There is murmured support for renewing the Farm Bill, imperfect though it is. But there is a more pointed desire to:

End farm subsidies. And end them now. American taxpayers have dumped $250 billion into farm subsidies over the last 10 years, and they will do it again if we don't change course, says Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group. The system is grossly inefficient, primarily rewards the biggest corporate growers, and results in wasted land use.

CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture/CC BY 1.0

We must be aware of the myriad injustices that besiege small farmers in the developing world. Yet we should also "question the crisis narrative" and recognize that there's a "wealth of local knowledge that must not be written off," says Ed Carr, an Associate Professor at University of South Carolina and a climate science adviser for USAID. That local knowledge must be tapped into; there's much to be learned about thriving in extreme conditions. Carr stressed the importance of not steamrolling subsistence and local farmers in poorer parts of the world as the West rushes in to save them from climate change and certain doom. Farmers in Ghana weathered recent monsoons better than commercial farmers.

Earlier, Meriwether noted that in the U.S., the average farmer is in his sixties. And Kirschenmann says that farming faces a major "loss of human capital." We are "still using 1974 version of farm" that is inspiring few. Perhaps that is why "only 6% of farmers are under 35."

And no matter what happens we will need farmers. [Even if they are farming in the lab, raising mutant meat from goo-covered vats.] We will need stewards of our lands, and we will need people fighting to see to it that others eat well. As Kirschenmann says:

"We can do without computers, we can do without automobiles, we can, if we have to, do without underpants. But we can't do without food."

Tags: Farming | Food Miles | Food Safety | Food Security | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Effects | Global Warming Solutions | resilience