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The Fight to Close the Food Gap
In June 2013, I suddenly found myself having a meal in the middle of a field with a scholar from Spain, an environmental lawyer who specialized in water resources, an expert on energy, and an ecologist. I had been awarded a fellowship to attend a Vermont Law School summer session course on the global challenge of feeding the world while protecting forests and other natural landscapes, and that evening I had gone with other fellows, visiting faculty, and staff to the home of John Echeverria, a professor of law who was then the acting director of the Environmental Law Center. The group had come to the summer law program for a range of reasons—to teach, to learn, to interact with others outside our professions—and the Echeverrias’ gathering, an informal buffet dinner on their porch, was meant to encourage camaraderie among the faculty and students. Halfway through the meal I stood up when I heard what sounded like a lawn tractor approaching, its driver hollering. I looked to the front yard and saw a picnic table on wheels. “Are you coming?” the enthusiastic driver asked. At John’s urging a few dinner guests joined me in nodding yes. The driver of the all-terrain table introduced himself as John’s neighbor and friend. He was on his evening joyride and had hoped to find a few companions. Both John and the driver suggested those of us new to Vermont take our plates with us for the ride down to an alfalfa field to behold the green landscape.
“Which one?” I asked with curiosity.
“The one next to the river,” he said and pointed to the river valley that stretched beyond the front yard. For a moment I hesitated. I was enjoying the historic Victorian farmhouse. The driver prodded: “When have you ever been on a motorized picnic table?” Never. So I joined in.
It was an amazing ride. We bounced along a tractor path through the field until we rested on a bridge over the Ompompanoosuc River.
The meal was entirely local, prepared with seasonings that gave the food a Latin twist by John’s wife: locally produced pork, squash and beans from a nearby garden, and lettuce and herbs from the Echeverrias’ backyard. Exhortations to “eat local” and “vote with your fork” have become ubiquitous since the mid-2000s, and the bounty before us was enough to make anyone a proponent. In this part of Vermont local food is plentiful, and state policies support and encourage small-scale farming. But could states everywhere—and countries everywhere—support policies that encourage their local farms to grow abundant amounts of food for local populations? During this particular idyll in the alfalfa, it was tempting to hope that Vermont—its policies and local food culture writ large—might have the answer.
We are on the cusp of a global food crisis. But you may not know it if you are looking at Vermont. Parts of Vermont could best be described as the “eat local”–utopia. In much of the United States—and the world—city sprawl, among other issues, means that meeting citizens’ calorie needs with local production is virtually impossible. And, in just two decades, an additional 2.6 to 4 billion people will be sitting down at the global table wondering what’s for dinner, what is dinner, or even if we have dinner.1 That’s the equivalent of adding the population of New York City to the world’s grocery lines every month for the next thirty-five years.
As we sat in the field, our moving dinner party discussed how a growing population is putting pressure on the world’s water, land, and natural resources like never before. Planning ahead to address this fight to feed humankind is both a numbers game and an urgent social crisis. Calories, climate change, and acreage for farming are some factors on one side of the equation. The 7 billion–plus people on the planet now, projected to swell to 9.6 to 11 billion by 2050, are on the other.
How is the global food system meeting the demands of people right now? Of the more than 7 billion people in the world, about 1 in 6 go to bed hungry every night. This is not because we don’t have food. This is not because we do not grow enough food. It is, for the most part, because about a billion people, or somewhat fewer, don’t have the financial, institutional, or political means to get it. They’re too poor. They’re too disenfranchised. They’re too disconnected from world affairs to exercise power to get this food. They are food insecure. Essentially it’s a problem of poverty and institutions and not one of agronomy or land-use change or forests.
But in the near and far future, a growing global population with changing tastes will add to food insecurity, putting additional pressure on the food system. More important than population increases is dietary change in the rising middle class. Yes: adding more than 2 billion people to the planet during the next two to three decades is a big issue—it means a whopping 30 percent increase in food demand. But consider the increasing wealth of the world, especially the 4 billion people who are now becoming part of the global middle class. That group will increase from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 3.2 billion by 2020 and 4.9 billion by 2030. Most of this growth will come from Asia. By 2030 people in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other Asian countries will constitute 66 percent of the global middle-class population and account for 59 percent of middle-class consumption, compared to 28 percent and 23 percent, respectively, in 2009.2 They are changing their diets and adopting a more Western style of diet. So that means eating more meats, more dairy products, more sugars, fats, oils, and other resource-intensive foods. Population growth is part of the issue, but more important is consumption: how diets will change with increasing affluence. There may now be sufficient food, if it is not wasted, but it is not always affordable. This illustrates a basic paradox of the food supply—once people have sufficient funds to afford food, they almost immediately want better food, which puts greater strain on the food system.
Vermont has had a long history of community-supported agriculture, an alternative to supermarket shopping where customers pledge to support a farm or group of farms and share the risks of farming with the growers. While the concept of community-supported agriculture originated in Japan in the 1960s and was further developed in the 1970s in Europe, farmers in New England—and especially Vermont’s dairy cooperatives—have been moving toward closer connections to consumers ever since organizing themselves through cooperatives for the better part of a century.3 Community-supported agriculture differs from a co-op, which introduces a middleman. In community-supported agriculture, consumers buy directly from their local grower without going through a middleman. The number of people buying their food directly from farms has grown steadily in response to the increasing demand for natural and organic food, particularly from the burgeoning urban population.4
Today, there are between 2,600 and 6,000 farms that sell to consumers through these direct agreements across the United States. (People disagree on official ag census statistics.)5 Yet some research provocatively suggests that local farming, as well as organic farming, is not always better for the environment than large-scale production for larger markets because small and organic producers often have lower yields and need more land to produce the same amount of food, resulting in more deforestation and biodiversity loss, which ultimately can undercut the environmental benefits.6 Depending on the crop, consuming local food does not always translate to more efficient use of water, energy, and land resources than consuming food produced on large, modern farms for mass distribution. This is to say, complexities exist, and “buy local” isn’t a silver bullet. When both small- and large-scale systems take on more elements of agroecology—a field that takes a whole system approach to agriculture production and combines biodiversity and ecology with farmers’ knowledge and consideration of social and economic conditions—they can reduce agriculture’s impact on climate change and make it possible for ecosystems to produce abundant sustainable food while also improving social and economic resiliency in food systems. Because feeding the world sustainably is a critical human problem rooted in the multifaceted and deeply interconnected relationships between humans and the environment, the response requires us to examine the entire food system holistically, from production through processing, distribution, and consumption. Ultimately the solution to feeding the hot, hungry teeming planet of the future is not in the rolling hills of the Vermont countryside, where ecological abundance and economic wealth create the possibility for delicious local dinners next to clean, flowing rivers. Rather, there will be many solutions in many different places that must reflect the relationships between global warming and global hunger, between the natural environment and the social environment, in our attempts to address both problems.
Local food has benefits and tradeoffs. It’s almost always fresher than food that has been trucked 1,000 miles, but distance doesn’t necessarily correlate with the environmental costs of that food. Writing in World Watch Magazine, Sarah DeWeerdt argues:
If the goal is to improve the environmental sustainability of the food system as a whole, then there are a variety of public policy levers that we can pull. To be sure, promoting more localized food production and distribution networks would reduce transport emissions. But what if a greater investment in rail infrastructure helped to reverse the trend toward transporting more food by inefficient semi-truck? What if fuel economy standards were increased for the truck fleet that moves our food? Or, to name one encompassing possibility, what if a carbon-pricing system incorporated some of the environmental costs of agriculture that are currently externalized? Local food is delicious, but the problem—and perhaps the solution—is global.7
Researchers have found that 83 percent of emissions occur before food even leaves the farm.8
I worked hard to keep all this in mind while enjoying the delicious dinner in the alfalfa field in Vermont. The other guests and I swapped impressions about the impact of farming on ecosystems, the effects of extreme weather and drought on crops, and the destruction of forests and degradation of pastures to support a growing population that is eating more meat. We talked about fracking and nuclear power, water and soil, science and technology, and what kind of knowledge people might need in the future. As I looked around the table, my strongest impression was that the answer depended on all these things at once: social sciences like economics and politics, the environmental sciences, and the unequal capacities for adaptation; human geography and development; the rural and urban poor; health care and population; education and women’s empowerment; and land use and technology.
When it comes to food, transportation contributes a tiny fraction of the overall environmental impact. Local food has plenty of benefits, and I’m all for it, but if you want to “think global,” you need to consider other factors: changing our consumption of animal products; reducing human fertility rates, which is the average number of children that would be born per woman; expanding agriculture on treeless, degraded lands rather than within forests; and addressing the gross overuse—and underuse—of fertilizer.
In other words, Vermont’s kumbaya agrarian model is not the global answer to how to feed the world. It might be the answer to feeding Vermont. Or part of Vermont. What we need is a sustainable and resilient global agricultural system. How we decide to feed the next 2.5 billion people will define civilization for millennia to come. Technically, farmers today grow enough food to feed everyone. Yet nearly 1 billion people periodically go hungry, usually because the food is too expensive or not available in the right places. Families in poorer parts of the world have historically consumed one meal a day. In some areas families plan their meals for the week and decide which two days they will go without eating entirely. The number of people who use this strategy will likely increase as the world population grows amid a changing climate.
So, maddeningly, our current food problem isn’t linear. A major trend is more meat and dairy consumption, and it is affecting food production, land use, water use, and food prices globally. The rapid rise of the global middle class is driving half the increase in the world’s predicted food consumption. To prevent more hunger farmers would have to more than double their production by 2050, even though the population will not have doubled. As more people gain wealth, they adopt diets that include meat and dairy. And producing a pound of chicken or beef takes four to twelve pounds of grain, respectively. So we run into a shortage—or destabilization of prices—as the world tries to produce more grain for animal feed.
As I sat in the Vermont field observing the richness of the land around us, the discussion turned to the expansion of farming. Someone wondered why we can’t grow more food by planting more acres. Straightforward as this seems, increasing the amount of land devoted to agriculture is not the answer. Half the world’s vegetated land is already devoted to agriculture. Clearing more forests, especially tropical forests, and grasslands would cause an environmental disaster. Nor are crop yields improving fast enough. To keep up with projected food demands, farmers will need to produce 2.4 percent more each year—and every year. Even with the spread of modern farming methods, farmers achieve half that, or a production increase of 0.9 to 1.6 percent per year. Finally, climate change is predicted to reduce crop growth by at least 1.5 to 2.5 percent per decade.9 Climate change is forecast to significantly hurt some crops in some areas. In India, for example, research shows that wheat yields will suffer losses of 6 to 23 percent by 2050.10
As a journalist my job is to talk with leading experts to understand how society is working to address the food gap. While I was interviewing people on food production and climate change for this book, everyone I talked to seemed a little panicked, to say the least. I asked a plant researcher about how to improve rice yields enough to meet the food needs of a growing population under climate change. I was expecting a technical description of innovations in rice breeding or growing methods. His answer? Educate women and girls while giving them access to family planning in order to reduce population growth and the demand for food.
When I spoke with one of the world’s leading experts on global land use, I learned his solution to feeding a hot, hungry planet isn’t improving soils or yields or preventing deforestation; rather, he pointed to the need to improve the health and nutrition of infants and children younger than five in many developing countries because their mental and physical capacities are stunted permanently as a result of being starved for calories and vitamins essential to growth.11
When I talked to a lawyer who develops policies on global agriculture, I learned her solution to feeding the world is to grant women legal rights to the land they are farming. And when I talked to a top authority on food policy in the developing world, he did not discuss his area of expertise—the use of genetically modified seeds, for instance—but rather the need to build better roads and better access to information technology through mobile phones. During all these interviews I was fascinated to note that the answers from experts did not always reflect their areas of expertise.
This was my eureka moment: As their responses made clear, addressing the fight to feed the world population will require disparate systems working together. The components of the global food system are interconnected, and these connections—especially those components and activities in one part of the system that strive for positive impacts across the system—are at risk. Furthermore, change within and around food systems is not likely to occur soon enough or on a scale large enough to avert disaster. We have begun to exhaust our planet and the natural resources that form the basis of the food system. We also have made social, economic, and policy decisions that do not always take into account unintended consequences and tradeoffs. However, as the experts also made clear, integrating ideas from both the social and natural sciences will act as levers and will effect positive change. When these levers are pulled simultaneously, the approaches that integrate education and empowerment, data and insights, policy shifts, disruptive technologies, and wise choices and politics can target root causes, address fundamental holistic solutions, and bring sweeping change to close the food gap. This book shows us how.
* * *
When I was growing up in Minnesota in the 1970s and ’80s, my parents pretty much knew the sources of the main foods we ate. Eggs came from the egg man down the street; meat was from a side of beef they bought periodically from the meat locker in the tiny village of Bergen. Pork came from the seasonal hog roast and was frozen, or often from a hog farm a couple miles away. The local dairy supplied milk. Our bread and rolls came from the bakery on Main Street. Our family garden plot at my grandparents’ farm, which had soil so black it looked blue, produced our vegetables. In winter our mom served canned or frozen vegetables from the summer and fall harvests. We did not eat much fruit. Sometimes my mom’s cousins or friends brought us apples from their orchards. In proper 1970s fashion we had our share of processed foods like Wonder Bread, Campbell’s tomato soup, Spaghetti-O’s, Kraft macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and bologna. But, at least while I was a young child, most of our sustenance came from local and farm-grown foods. That changed during my teens. Our family’s dependence on packaged foods grew, and thanks to the industrial food system, it was inexpensive and easily accessible.
I witnessed the change in the U.S. food system in my own backyard. My first summer job was hoeing the weeds out of the soybean fields that surrounded my town of Jackson, Minnesota. Back then teenage labor—not the toxic herbicide Roundup—was the preferred method of weed control. In 1976 those fields in Jackson County produced twenty-eight bushels of soybeans per acre. By 2015 farmers were coaxing 47.5 bushels from the same area.12 Yields increased over time, but now the growth in crop yields is stagnating. Chief among the concerns is the sustainability of staple crops such as soybeans, corn (maize), rice, and wheat. The world has been consuming corn and soybeans at a rapidly growing rate because more people are using them for biofuel and eating animals that are fed corn and soybeans. This is the direct result of the growth of the middle class worldwide.
Any successful answer to feeding a hot, hungry planet will result from continual change, shifts, and adaptation to an uncertain future. Figuring out where society can sustainably grow more food and how people might try to do that under climate change will be inextricably linked to national security, public health, and economics. In many ways the world’s farmers and food producers are no more masters of their fate in their interactions with the environment and global markets than are hikers trying to summit a mountain. We may not have absolute control of our future, but we also have not left the future to fate. A skilled guide, supportive backpack and boots, and well-secured provisions can help guarantee a successful journey. In Hot, Hungry Planet, you will meet the skilled guides to a sustainable future. As their experiences and stories make clear, leveraging the changes in science and technology must be accompanied by improvements in education and women’s rights, data and insights, policy shifts, and wise choices to meet the food needs of our planet.
Why is it so important that all these disparate systems—science and economics and education and agronomy, for instance—work together to ensure we have enough crops and livestock to feed the world? For most of our existence human populations have been small and the earth relatively large. One billion people were living on Earth as the nineteenth century became the twentieth. We had vast resources relative to the size of our society. That is no longer the case. We are now much more numerous as a species—more than 7 billion of us, hurtling toward 9 to 10 billion by the middle of the century. Population growth has been a big factor in this pressure on our planet. But perhaps even more important is the way we use resources and technology.
Our population has more than doubled since the mid-1960s. The world economy grew about sevenfold during the same time, and as a result global food and water consumption has tripled, and fossil fuel combustion has quadrupled. We’ve reached an inflection point in the history of this planet, and we’ll need to effect change—quickly—if we want to stay here.
In general humans are better off than in the past. We live longer lives. We live healthier lives with better nutrition and better medical care. More of us live in democratic societies with greater literacy and freedom. We have more capacity to adapt our lives to changes around us. On one side of the equation humans are making tremendous progress. But on the environmental side things are not so good. We are exhausting water supplies. We are exhausting soil nutrients. We are exhausting our forests and biodiversity.
Three broad trends—two are troubling, and one might be harnessed for a better future—are shaping what comes next. The first, as I discussed earlier, is a growing global middle class hungering for more meat and dairy. The second is environmental degradation from the clearing of grasslands and forests to graze cattle, grow oil palm trees, and raise more grain for animal feed. Developing countries continue to clear vast forested areas at a remarkable clip. This has had devastating effects on human health, economics, land, ecosystems, biodiversity, and climate change.
The third trend is the one that gives me hope. More and more people are beginning to understand the need for economic opportunities to alleviate poverty. For 75 percent of rural poor, agriculture is the primary means of supporting their existence.13 In the hierarchy of the rural poor, women occupy the lowest position. They comprise roughly 43 percent of the agricultural workforce worldwide, and they are the majority of agriculture workers in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.14 Yet in many places women do not have rights to the land they farm, much less to a high school education. They don’t have career options other than marriage, and they don’t have the right to plan and space the births of their children.
In this book I will examine all three trends but especially the last one: the increasing awareness that social and environmental solutions are interconnected and can have positive feedbacks and impacts on multiple parts of the food system. Education and empowerment for women, the rural poor, and other marginalized groups that contribute much to local and regional food systems can open the door to profound social change while reducing both hunger and the environmental effects of agriculture. By placing particular emphasis on the rights of women and balancing the growth in the demand for food with the economic and social aspects of food security, we can address and reverse challenges posed by growing human populations and rising global temperatures in ways that positively reinforce other, related solutions.
Every week I hear about some innovation for helping women, but one program, developed by a woman in Uganda, truly exemplifies the complex and wonderful cascade effect. Let me tell you about Safira.
Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Palmer