Freezing the footprint of food

Posted on by on April 13th, 2010 | 0 Comments »

In a forward-looking dissertation titled Agriculture from 2000 to 2050 - The Business As Usual Scenario, Dr. Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund effectively argues that the “business as usual” model for food production is not sustainable as the global population explodes over the next 40 years.

Dr. Clay, who presented his paper last month at the Global Harvest Initiative 2010 Symposium, Closing the Gap: Examining an Alternative Future, proposes freezing the footprint of food by intensifying, not expanding production.

It’s a compelling piece that also has been published in GHI’s book Benefits of An Alternative Future. The most persuasive aspect of Dr. Clay’s thesis is that it offers solutions for how we can feed the 9 billion people who will inhabit the Earth in 2050, while at the same time recognizing that we must be able to do in a way that sustains the planet. In other words, Dr. Clay urges that we need to do more with less impact on land and water resources.

Consider this excerpt from Dr. Clay’s paper:

We live on a single planet with finite resources. Today, we’re living at the level of 1.3 planets according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Index. Translated: We are “eating” the planet-we are consuming the planet’s principle rather than living off its interest. And that’s today; by 2050, there will be nine billion people and on average they will consume twice as much. So the question is: How do we feed a larger population globally and maintain the planet? We must freeze the footprint of food. And, at the same time we must begin to do more with less, while restoring the planet. The math is simple. On a finite planet, population times how much each of us consumes must equal the Earth’s carrying capacity. Exceed that, and we degrade the planet not only for our generation, but for our children and our grandchildren.

In spelling out the consequences of continuing the business as usual scenario, Dr. Clay goes on to write:

For the past 50 years, we have expanded food production by converting natural habitat at the rate of 0.4 percent per year. In just the past decade - as developing countries such as China and India are hitting their economic strides - the rate has risen to 0.6 percent annually. This is occurring at a time when many might expect an increase in the intensity of production, rather than simple expansion.

If we assume the business as usual case for expanding into natural habitat, there will be very little natural habitat left by 2050. By that time, we will have 3 billion more people with 2.9 times as much income, consuming twice as much. In fact, the research suggests that in developing countries incomes are likely to increase more than five-fold by 2050. Moreover, by 2050, more people will live in cities (more than are alive today). If they behave like the urban residents of today, they will depend on others for virtually all their food. If we are to maintain a living planet for our grandchildren, then we will need to Freeze the Footprint of Food. We need more from less.

To freeze the footprint of food, we need smart policies, innovative ideas and new technologies. We must intensify food production rather than expand it…

Dr. Clay is right-on in his insightful assessment, particularly as it relates to intensifying agricultural production, while sustaining the planet. The Global Harvest Initiative also believes that much of the solution rests with agriculture’s ability to produce more with the same or fewer resources. The ability to meet the food needs of nine billion people in the year 2050 rests largely on utilizing shared ideas and innovations that will lead to accelerated agricultural productivity growth and improved supply chain efficiency. Working together we can get there; we must get there.

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