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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Feeding a Growing Population

Air Date: Week of

Agroforestry increases productivity by combining trees and crops in the same agricultural fields. (Photo: treesftf)

The world’s population is expected to reach seven billion by the end of this month. Janet Ranganathan of the World Resources Institute tells host Bruce Gellerman about strategies to sustainably feed the growing number of hungry humans.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

Happy birthday to…us. According to the United Nations, on Halloween the seven billionth person on the planet will be born. A treat, no doubt for the proud parents, but it’s going to take a lot more than a trick to feed us all. Talk about scary: at this rate, just in the coming year, there will be another 80 million new hungry mouths to feed.

Janet Ranganathan, Vice President for Science and Research at World Resources Institute has written about the problem for the online journal Solutions. The title of her article: A New Approach to Feeding the World.

RANGANATHAN: There's been an intimate relationship between population growth and our ability to produce food since the beginning of time. And the modern food system has permitted really extraordinary growths in productivity in terms of food output. But it’s not sustainable. In terms of thinking about environmental challenges, agriculture really is the hungry elephant in the room.

GELLERMAN: Well, what’s the problem with how we grow food now?

RANGANATHAN: Food production consumes about 70 percent of the planet’s fresh water. It contributes significantly to climate change, which, in turn, is going to impact our ability to produce food. And the fertilizer that we add to the modern production system, at best, only 50 percent of that is taken up by the plants.

The rest of it gradually works its way down the waterways to places like the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi Basin where you have what we call these "dead zones." In the Mississippi, the dead zone can reach something like the size of New Jersey at times.

GELLERMAN: So how do we make it sustainable?

RANGANATHAN: I like to talk about three potential solutions to the food production problem.


RANGANATHAN: The first one is where we actually have some significant success. And it comes from an unlikely place. It comes from Niger, which is a landlocked country in west Africa with a population about 15 million. So, the traditional African agriculture practice of growing crops and trees together - some people call it agro-forestry - that sort of ended when the colonists came to Africa.

They thought it was smart to grow trees and crops in different places. The fact of the matter is, we didn’t recognize the contribution that trees made in the crop production system. 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.

When we lost these, the landscape started turning to desert, and with that, food production decreased. It took some time to figure out how to regenerate the trees and to get the policies in place for that to happen. But something like an area the size of Costa Rica has been re-greened in Niger.

GELLERMAN: Is this something that will only work in Africa? Or could we use that agro-forestry here?

The Indonesian government hopes to use some degraded lands for future palm oil plantations to avoid clearing intact rainforests. (Beth Gingold, WRI)

RANGANATHAN: Probably not so much here - it’s particularly well suited for the ecosystems that you find in Africa. Already efforts are underway by the development community to expand that to Zambia, to Malawi and to Burkina Faso. We are starting to see a solution at scale there. So, it’s very encouraging.

GELLERMAN: Well, you said there were three things - what’s the second thing that you would do?

RANGANATHAN: The second thing I wanted to talk about was restoration. Right now, there is a clear link between the expansion of agriculture in the tropics and deforestation.

GELLERMAN: So, the idea is that you destroy the forest to clear the land to create acres for crops, and therefore you’re undoing the forest and you’re undoing the climate.

RANGANATHAN: Correct. We absolutely have to break that link. Forests play a really kind of crucial role in regulating the climate and the water cycle, both of which are imperative for sustainable agriculture. But it just so happens a readymade solution here to divert that expansion from tropical rainforests onto degraded land.

GELLERMAN: So, when you cut down a forest, you degrade the land, and you want to turn it to soil you can use for farming.

RANGANATHAN: Not all of it can be used for that, but certainly some subset. One of the things that we’re trying to do in Indonesia - which is where about one tenth of the remaining tropical forests remains - is to actually move palm oil. One of the things that’s driving deforestation in Indonesia is the expansion of palm oil plantations. And so we’re looking at how do we actually divert that palm oil plantations onto degraded land in Indonesia.

GELLERMAN: So, we’ve got agro-forestry. We’ve got improve degraded lands. What’s the third thing that you would do?

Roughly 30% of food is wasted, either in the field, by retailers or by consumers. (Photo: superclusterer)

RANGANATHAN: The third thing is to address the issue of food waste. It’s kind of a little bit like the energy efficiency issue. We lose something in the order of 30 percent of food between the field and the fork is wasted. You reduce that, you reduce the amount of land, you reduce the amount of water you need, you reduce the impacts on greenhouse gas emissions. And you save money. To me, that’s a quadruple - win-win-win.

GELLERMAN: So it's very simple then, it’s basically what my mother said to me: clean your plate!

RANGANATHAN: That’s the solution to the consumer problem. And in fact, a lot of the food that’s wasted in the developed world is actually at that stage - it’s in the food services industry and in consumers.

In developing countries though, the waste tends to be more post-harvest. Here's an example: in Afghanistan, just a simple introduction of grain silos that could be made locally reduced food waste there from 20 percent to just two percent.

GELLERMAN: And we could feed, doing these things, seven billion people on the planet.

RANGANATHAN: Yes, if we take these kinds of solutions and others - I’ve just given you three examples - if we take them to scale. They can’t be sort of boutique projects here and there. We’ve actually got to think about - how do we scale these solutions?

GELLERMAN: You know, you surprise me a bit because I was expecting you to say something about having a second green revolution - where we have improved seeds, and you know, chemical inputs, improved farming techniques, but you don't mention of those.

RANGANATHAN: Well, I think I have. If you think about the example I gave you of greening the Sahel in Niger, I think that very much is the second green revolution. Only this is a green revolution that isn’t so highly dependent on chemical inputs and it’s more sustainable.

GELLERMAN: What kind of world do you see, if we don’t do these types of things? I mean, the obvious answer is we see a very hungry world.

RANGANATHAN: Yes, we see a hungry world. We see a world where there is more conflicts. 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. We’re starting to see efforts now by national governments, by the World Bank, and others, to rethink about how they need to reinvest in agriculture. I mean, traditionally, the sort of "Cinderella" of the last 10 years - it's not sort of attracted a lot of investment - but we’re seeing a more concerted effort there. So I think some good news out of that.

GELLERMAN: Janet Ranganathan is Vice President for Science and Research at World Resources Institute. Mrs. Ranganathan, thank you so very much.

RANGANATHAN: My pleasure.



A New Approach to Feeding the World


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