How to feed 7 billion people and keep Earth alive?

Climate change is a headache of politicians, environmentalists and farmers. On its own, the increase of the planet's temperature by a few degrees is not so scary. Much more unpleasant is associated with this crisis of agriculture whose inevitability is a matter of time. Simply put, feeding seven billion-strong population is the number one challenge for the modern world.

If in the near future we do not figure out how to produce more food without harming the environment, the Earth's food supply will be exhausted in a few years. This is exactly what John Foley, head of the Environment Institute at the University of Minnesota, calls the "inconvenient truth".

The search for a magic solution generated the most heated debates around the world. Should we introduce more organic products into the diet of mankind or try to boost yields through more efficient use of fertilizers and methods of irrigation in arid areas of Africa and Asia? Will we be able to become semi-vegetarians, especially the middle class that enjoy well-prepared meat with a glass of red wine? What is the value of the potential arable land occupied by virgin forests and rare species of animals at the background of the fact that millions of people go to bed hungry every night? What is most important - to improve food production or its distribution?

Foley regularly gives lectures at various conferences and summits. He has an amazing ability to explain global issues with a few simple sentences. His approach to the issue of food security is very pragmatic, although his view is nonstandard: "Can we feed the world and save the planet? Yes, it is possible. But not with the business."

Let us begin with some statistics. Today, 16 million square kilometers of land in the world is allocated for crops, which is comparable in size to South America. Pastures occupy nearly twice the area - 40 million square kilometers, the entire Africa. In general, agricultural lands occupy 40 percent of land. At the same time, Foley said, we use 60 times more land for growing food than is actually needed. In addition, half of the fresh water is used for agricultural purposes, the most part - for irrigation. All this coupled with the cutting down of forests and depletion of land makes agriculture the largest source of greenhouse gases. The manufacturing industry, transport and power are somewhere on the bottom of the list. "We have exhausted all the resources," says Foley. "We have exhausted the planet."

The forecasts, meanwhile, look scary: taking into account the population growth, by mid-century the world will have to produce twice as much food on the depleted land. The easiest solution to this problem is to explore new territory, but it would have serious environmental consequences. New arable lands are vast tropical forests of South America and Asia. If they are cut down, there will be more food, but then a huge number of animal species will disappear, not to mention the fact that deforestation will not benefit the air we breathe - there will be more carbon, and nothing will be left to produce oxygen.

Foley says that the most sensible option is to "freeze" the growth of agricultural enterprises and to minimize their spread through the body of the planet. We just need to cultivate the land better. We must focus on those areas where the yield is poor. Some of these regions are well known - the desert regions of Africa, where because of poverty, lack of fertilizer and infrastructure, average farmers produce significantly less grain per acre than they could under decent conditions. Surprisingly, Eastern Europe is on a par with Africa with its mess of agriculture inherited from Soviet times.

Some people already know how to increase productivity. One farmer from the American Midwest, for example, can feed 150 people - thanks to fertilizers and irrigation system literacy. However, high production rate also has serious side effects - dead bodies of water polluted with chemicals, the environmental damage from pesticide use and poor health of farmers breathing the fertilizer. The main problem of the "green revolution" is not even a shortage of water and cheap energy, but the effect of the agricultural activity on the environment.

Organic foods will not solve this problem. To date, only one percent of the arable land is used to grow organic, but this food is not for the poor. Foley said that organic products are bought by white people living in rich countries and having a good income. Compared to organic practices, traditional agriculture, of course, is more productive. The genetically modified products are not going away either: GM crops are fed to livestock and used for the production of fabrics.

What is the solution? Switching to "Terra-culture" as Foley calls this method - reasonable farming with consideration for the environment. This means, first of all, more efficient use of water, and possibly the development of new eating habits - most of the grain grown in developed countries is fed to livestock, not humans. Incidentally, one filet mignon "uses" 16 pounds of grain. Globally, we should eat less meat, so that people in developing countries have an opportunity to eat it at least a couple times a year. It will save the developed countries from the epidemic of obesity and huge amount of food waste: according to statistics, on a global scale every three calories of food or energy goes straight into the trash can, lost or simply not used.

Natalia Sinitsa.

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov