More food with less pollution?

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Yes it’s possible … if we do agriculture right

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Can we feed earth’s growing population without destroying the environment?

Every time there’s a discussion of population growth, someone says the answer is definitely no. Agriculture is a major source of green house gas emissions, so more agriculture will cause more global warming. What’s more, agriculture both uses huge amounts of water and poisons water through run-off.

It seems obvious: More people equals more food equals more pollution.

In Chapter 6 of Too Many People?, Simon Butler and I reported scientific studies that contradict that view, that showed how shifting to ecologically sound agriculture could simultaneously feed the world and reduce pollution.

Another major study, published this week, has reached the same conclusion:

“Meeting the food security and sustainability challenges of the coming decades is possible, but will require considerable changes in nutrient and water management.” (Nature -subscription required) 

Examining seventeen major crops covering 79% of the world’s cropland, scientists at the University of Minnesota and McGill University found that proper management of fertilizer and water could increase yields by 45% to 70% in most cases, whole substantially reducing environmental impacts.

Interviewed by Science Daily, lead author Nathaniel Miller said:

“These results show that substantial gains are indeed possible from closing the yield gap — and combining these efforts with improved management of existing lands can potentially reduce agriculture’s environmental impact. They also offer concrete suggestions as to where and how we can focus future efforts. This work should serve as a source of great encouragement and motivation for those working to feed the 9-billion-plus people anticipated to live on this planet in 2050 while protecting Earth’s indispensible life support systems.”

But, as we wrote in Too Many People? —

“The fact that we can feed the world doesn’t mean that everyone will actually be fed. The giant corporations whose profits depend on ever-increasing sales of fertilizer, pesticides, and patented seeds will resist conversion to ecological agriculture, and if we don’t slow global warming, changing conditions will harm many crops. Nevertheless, Agrimonde and the other studies offer reason for optimism: they show that demography isn’t destiny, that it is possible for humanity to feed itself without destroying the world in the process.”


More from my notebook…