Monday, September 3, 2012

Food security and sustainability

One of the primary challenges of the day is meeting the growing food needs of our population while minimizing damage to the environment.  Alleviation of poverty requires economic growth and large-scale agriculture, but these things often cause significant environmental damage. Sustainable agricultural practices are available that are less damaging to the environment, but can they effectively feed billions of people? Probably not.

Is poverty reduction vs. environmental sustainability an inescapable tradeoff? I've always considered this to be the case and as such my enthusiasm for sustainable agriculture has remained tempered.  But a new study reveals that there may be hope for seemingly incompatible goals of feeding the planet and preserving critical ecosystem services. Read about it here at Science Daily.  The upshot of the analysis is that yield gaps can be closed with better management of water, land and fertilizer. In other words, it appears to be possible in theory if we can make some changes. These include shifting consumption toward a diet that includes less meat, using less food crops for fuel, using fertilizer more effectively (increasing use in some places and decreasing use in others) and curtailing the burning of tropical forests for low-yield agriculture.

Now the question becomes, can we achieve these goals?  If so, how? Can we rely on the market mechanism to get us there or do we need market intervention via active policy? If the latter, what types of policy interventions might move us in the right direction?

More on the topic here at Scientific American

More here at World Bank


Anonymous said...

It is difficult to understand how this is even feasible in practice. It seems like a wonderful idea, but this idea seems a little utopian in practice. With all the variables that were left-out of the study, will there really be time before 2050 to implement any significant changes? Or to reap the benefits from those changes?

Alice Wall

Catherine Mauch said...

I believe some of these goals could be met, however I don't believe Adam Smith's "invisible hand" will get us there by 2050. In that case, market intervention via active policy is the best bet. To start the United States (as well as other culprits: China, Western Europe, and India) could restrict their overuse of fertilizers. Cuts in fertilizer use would not dramatically effect their crop yield. This could help diminish the enormous dead zones found in such areas like the Gulf of Mexico--and help towards the goal of environmental sustainability.

Anonymous said...

I also believe that some of these goals can be met, however I do not believe that it will be easy. I think that it would take a lot to change the way things are, particularly in agriculture. I believe that it will be hard to get the entire population informed enough about the state of the environment to get everyone on the same page. I wouldn't know the best way to stop overuse of certain resources besides making them very expensive or difficult to obtain In order to induce change.

Bri Heydlauf

Lipscomb said...

All good points; here are a few hopes of mine. As far as third world countries with underproductive farmlands, I would hope to see a multi-national, volunteer effort to help boost the productivity of low-yield farmlands led by professionals in the appropriate areas. Political stability discounted, I'm sure these low-yield nations would treasure a chance to improve their yields with minimal environmental damage and thus improve their economy and potential exports. Hopefully, this would ultimately lead to a lesser burden of food production in "heavy" countries like the US & China (which could then use less destructive, lower-yield farming methods) by increasing the agricultural spread geographically--assuming comparative advantage holds perfectly. Regulation might be necessary to ensure we're importing our fair share of product from the new spread.
Also, on another point regarding wastefulness and too much consumption of meat: I'm assuming everyone in the class agrees that American food portions are way too big. Recall the law that was being debated that would make certain drink sizes over a certain ounce limit illegal? (In NY, I think.) As silly as the law sounds in regards to Americans, obesity, and self-control, perhaps it could ultimately reduce consumption if we set certain portions, like meat, lower. The obvious flaw is that people would just increase the quantity of their portions if sizes are limited--but would that really happen unanimously across the population? I know McDonalds, for instance, has an array of different sized burgers. If we eliminated the Big Mac and burgers above a certain size, are all people going to buy two or three McDoubles to make up the difference (assuming comparative prices were equal)? I don't think they would; perhaps a portion regulation on fast food & restaurant meats could significantly cut meat consumption in countries like the US.

-N. Lipscomb

Anonymous said...

While this would certainly be difficult to execute in reality, if it were to be done there would likely need to be many policy changes put in place to help implement this goal. For example, if it is necessary to reduce the amount of meat consumed and the amount of food crops used as fuel, then a tax placed on these items may lead to people avoiding them due to higher costs. Using fertilizer more effectively is definitely something that can be done better, even if it means placing large sums of money into the project, and certainly needs to be done if it can help reduce the poverty level.
-Riley Andrews

Dr. Peter Schuhmann said...

OK, everyone... It's fine to have an opinion and state your beliefs, but let's try to provide support for our positions. Objective analysis is what these discussion should be about. If you cannot cite sources, data or evidence, you can rely on theory ("if...then, because..."), but that theory should have empirical support.

Most of the posts in this thread are good in that regard, but a couple of points are treading into subjective opinion.

The purpose of the blog is not to evoke the first thoughts that pop into your mind. The purpose is to provide an opportunity for you to engage in critical thinking and research.

Anonymous said...

I saw this article in the New York Times about the competition for water in the West between oil and gas companies and farmers trying to grow crops and raise livestock. It does not have anything to do with the poverty problem, but it does point out another serious issue we face due to increasing demands for resources (including both food and energy).

Especially in dry years, such as this one, water in that part of the country can be hard to come by. New methods of oil and gas exploration and extraction like hydraulic fracturing require huge amounts of water. Most oil and gas companies are able to outbid the farmers and ranchers when it comes to leasing or buying water rights. The energy industry says that its opponents are exaggerating how much water oil and gas "take away," but it is no exaggeration that a single well can require 5 million gallons of water.

It becomes quite a conundrum since farms need the oil and gas to run their equipment but they must fight with the energy companies over scarce water resources. There are countless other effects of processes like hydraulic fracturing that the article does not delve into; however, I thought it was interesting that food production in our own country is facing potential crises as water becomes an increasingly scarce resource. Where is it most needed? How can agriculture and oil/gas extraction both increase to meet rising demand when they must compete over an essential component? Will both industries be able to find alternatives or more efficient ways to produce their products? Finding sustainable solutions in both food and energy production will be, I think, the only compromise.

-Laura Stein