Today’s Solutions: June 16, 2024

We’re increasingly feeding more people with less farmland. According to environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel at The Rockefeller University in New York City, the next 50 years will see an area of farmland the size of India returned to nature.
Using less land to feed more people: How is that possible?
Jesse Ausubel: “The logic is simple. The agricultural yield per hectare will continue to rise thanks to technical progress and high-yielding varieties. For example, the area of land used for corn cultivation in the U.S. has been declining for decades, despite growing production.
“In addition, population growth is slowing, and on average people around the world are becoming richer. After a certain level of affluence, caloric intake levels off; people don’t spend the extra income on more food anymore. So consumption will plateau. All this means the use of land to produce food is now at its peak.”
Yet 15 percent of the global population is undernourished and 25 percent is poor. For them, more income will mean greater food consumption.
JA: “Technology won’t eliminate hunger. That is a problem of distribution. Whether food will be more equitably distributed in the future, our model cannot predict. But several African countries, including Angola, Zambia and Ethiopia, have grown richer in recent years, and they are producing more and more food themselves. In those countries, the area used for farming is increasing, while in other countries it’s decreasing. At the same time, the richer members of the world’s population are eating less and less meat. A diet rich in meat needs twice the land of a simpler vegetarian diet.”
But doesn’t more intensive agriculture have a negative effect on the environment because it uses chemical fertilizers, pesticides and large quantities of water?
JA: “The answer is precision agriculture. Increased knowledge allows us to save water and energy and keep harmful substances from entering the soil and ending up in our food. Thanks to better ­weather forecasting, for example, and technologies such as GPS, sensors and drip irrigation, farmers only need to water their crops when it’s actually necessary. These techniques are already being adopted, but there’s much more that can be done.”
Who says farmland we no longer need will be returned to nature?
JA: “The search for profitable crops is important; it enables farmers to make a living. In many parts of the world, it’s hard to make a living as a farmer, especially without subsidies. That makes it desirable to create more work in the countryside. People who live there could be compensated for maintaining and improving the landscape as a national service. If we value natural landscapes, we must be willing to pay for them.”
Find more optimistic ideas about the future of farming in this free issue.

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