The two that will feed the 9 billion

Just before this weekly effort began 21 years ago this month, its two founders, the lovely Catherine and me, compiled a list of nearly 30 words we thought its title could include. Two words, however, shouted to be in every permutation of every possible title: farm and food.

The point of farming was—is—food so any comment, conversation or column about one had to include the other.

The latest publication to arrive at that same crossroads is National Geographic. On April 14, the 125-year-old NG launched, interactive portal dedicated to “The Future of Food.” (Links to source material are posted at

The website also kick-offs an eight-month run of print stories NG will publish on “How we eat today and how we can provide food for all as the world’s population grows.” In true NG fashion, it is a visual feast of photos and graphics.

The magazine series begins with May’s cover story, “Eat: The New Food Revolution.” The story’s subtitle, “ A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World,” then offers ideas that tomorrow’s more crowded, less natural world will likely use to feed itself.

From the start, the article’s author, Jonathon Foley, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, tackles the central future-of-food question we in American agriculture love to fight over: “Unfortunately the debate of how to address the global food challenge has become polarized, pitting conventional agriculture and global commerce against local food systems and organic farms…

As such, “Those who favor conventional agriculture talk about how modern mechanization, irrigation, fertilizers, and improved genetics can increase yields to help meet demand. And they’re right.

“Meanwhile,” he continues, “proponents of local and organic farms counter that the world’s small farmers could increase yields plenty—and help themselves out of poverty—by adopting techniques that improve fertility without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They’re right, too.”

In short, stop arguing; the world will need every farmer—red, white and blue; green, brown or whatever—with any idea to meet the food needs of an estimated 2 billion more people by 2050.

The biggest problem will not be how to grow more food; we know how to do that. The biggest problem will be how to double today’s food “availability” while “simultaneously cutting the environmental harm caused by agriculture.”

It’s an equation many of Big Ag’s Big Boys choose to ignore. The world’s already-stretched natural limits, however, cannot be ignored. Instead, Foley offers five steps that might solve this “dilemma.” None will be easy or without controversy.

First, we must “freeze agriculture’s footprint.” When food needs grew in the past, we simply grew more farmland; we deforested hill and dale and plowed prairies. Tomorrow’s farmers will have to make today’s 20 million square miles of global farmland more productive. That is, in fact, Foley’s step two.

His step three advocates marrying everything we know about the art of farming—cover crops, mulches, rotations—with the ever-expanding science of farming (GPS, prescription fertilizers, advanced genetics) to “use resources more efficiently” to deliver more food and more “sustainability.”

Foley’s fourth step holds two strategies today’s U.S. farmers will fight—more grain and less meat on future dinner plates and “curtailing the use of food crops for biofuels.”

Will more people eating more grain 35 years from now take up the slack in demand that a less-meat, no-biofuel future might hold? Probably, but we’ll know better in 35 years.

And step five? Waste less. It’s “estimated 25 percent of the world’s food calories and up to 50 percent of total food weight are lost or wasted before they can be consumed.”

Foley’s list is timely, practical and, for many farmers, tough to digest. It’s also a great new place to talk about where farmers and food are going in the next decades because wherever they’re going, they’re going together.

© 2014 ag comm