With global population marching toward 7 billion, a problem: Where’s the food?

Living on Earth

Story by Living on Earth. Listen to audio above for full interview.

As the world ticks toward the 7 billionth person being born, a sobering reality.

How will we feed ourselves?

Janet Ranganathan, Vice President for Science and Research at World Resources Institute, has written about this problem for an online journal and says the growth in food production that has allowed the world’s population to increase five-fold in 150 years will not be able to sustain that growth rate much longer.

“Food production consumes about 70 percent of the planet’s fresh water, she said. “It contributes significantly to climate change, which, in turn, is going to impact our ability to produce food.”

Among the possible solutions? Mixing food plants with trees, agro-forestry, which has been used successful in west Africa.

It’s actually a traditional African agricultural practice that was only stopped when European colonialists moved in.

“Trees act as a windbreak that reduces erosion, their roots help hold the soil in place, and their roots can also nitrogen fix – some trees are nitrogen fixers – actually increase soil fertility,” Ranganathan explained.

The goal wouldn’t be to use those practices everywhere, but rather to use them to make environments that had previously been inhospitable to agriculture a bit more welcoming.

The second approach involves looking for degraded land to convert into land where agriculture can happen. Ranganathan said this is critical because much of the loss in tropical forets, a leading cause of climate change, can be linked to efforts to grow more food.

The last issue, though, is probably the simplest. And it’s something everyone can help with. Ranganathan said about 30 percent of food is wasted from when it’s harvested in the field to when it is consumed. By reducing that waste portion, we can feed vastly more people with less land and less water, helping several other problems as well.

“You reduce the amount of land, you reduce the amount of water you need, you reduce the impacts on greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “And you save money. To me, that’s a quadruple win-win-win-win.”

In the developed world, that mostly means not taking food that won’t be eaten — and not leaving food behind on plates. In poorer areas, though, food storage is a major problem. Ranganathan said the addition of grain silos alon in Afghanistan could reduce food waste there from 20 percent to 2 percent.

“They can’t be sort of boutique projects here and there,” Ranganathan added. “We’ve actually got to think about – how do we scale these solutions”

The alternative, however, is grim. If the food system isn’t improved, wars that are fought today over oil may be fought tomorrow over food.

“Not having enough food – there’s nothing a human won’t do to get that. The issue of food security has now shot right up the political agenda,” Ranganathan said.


Hosted by Steve Curwood, “Living on Earth” is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More about “Living on Earth.”

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