Many critics of the organic food movement and the local food movement question if we can feed the growing world population with local, organic farms. Instead, they favor embracing science and technology to get higher and higher yields from our farmland. That’s the only way.
Really? This thinking assumes that land or crops or both are infinite; that we can forever keep up with the pace of the growing world population if we just continue to find more sophisticated scientific and technological solutions. Well, the last time I checked our resources were finite. There is only so much land available and only so much we can squeeze out of a seed. And is that really the future we want to head towards? A future where we keep pushing our limits like a risky bet at a casino? I can firmly say I don’t want to find out how much of our land can we turn into farmland to feed billions and billions of people. I like knowing that there are places still untouched by humankind, and I want to keep it that way.
So what’s the answer? No, I am not going to the touch the topic of birth control! The current recession is an unlikely source of inspiration, though. The economy went into the crapper, and companies laid off thousands of employees. We have since witnessed companies start to recover and actually earn grotesque profits again, and yet the unemployment rate has not changed. The simple deduction here is companies figured out how to be more efficient with less employees. The driving force of capitalism always finds a way to thrive! Why am I talking about the economy and doing more with less? The answer to feeding a growing population is be more efficient with less land!
I have been inspired by the latest innovations in urban farming, vertical farming, hydroponics and aquaponics. Essentially, there are very determined and brilliant people learning how to grow plants in abandoned lots and buildings. They are learning how to grow things in closed systems with zero waste and minimal depletion of natural resources (like using less water). It’s sustainability at its finest. Imagine if we didn’t have to encroach on any more new habitats to make new farms. Imagine if we actually reused and recycled land we have already processed. There is so much unused real estate in the world already – abandoned buildings, vacant lots. etc. People are proving we can convert these empty spaces into farms that grow fresh produce. Imagine what that would do for the local food movement. No need to ship a pear from half way around the world when it could be growing in that dentist office that went out of business last year. Imagine the reduction of fossil fuel consumption and of the overall carbon footprint in agriculture if your closest farm was next door. Imagine getting rid of the plague of food deserts that exists in urban areas. Kids won’t need to find their next meal at the local gas station (the only type of food store often available to them) if there is a urban farm operating out of vacant parking lot in the neighborhood.
In other words, we have a lot of underutilized space in the world. Let’s not destroy another square foot of land until we have masterfully re-purposed the land we have already disturbed. Indeed, there are frightening stats about food waste; some claim we waste as much as half of what we produce. What if we cut the amount of food production in half to match what we actually consumed? I cannot even begin to fathom what we could do with half of the world’s farmland. For starters, how about planting trees and offsetting some global warming? But really this points to massive overhauls that need to happen to our food production system. We wouldn’t need to overuse so much farmland if we managed better the flow and distribution of resources. We are nowhere near capacity of the current farmland we use to feed our population. If we are wasting half, do we really then already produce enough to feed double the world’s population now?
So the next time you hear someone worried about feeding the growing population, you slap them around and say “You have no idea.” We didn’t even get into changing our diet. It’s no secret that people already eat too much as evidence by the rising obesity rates. And what if we could get people to eat less meat? Enough to put those giant, inhumane feedlots out of business. That would free up land for food production, and it would also free up all the land that’s currently being used to grow feed grain for the animals. Yes, we have a problem with having enough food and land for a growing population under the current mismanaged and otherwise inefficient systems we have for producing food. If corporations can continue to profit and thrive with less employees, then surely we are smart enough to figure out better, more productive ways to feed the masses. Let’s use science and technology to get our systems more effective, not to harm the integrity of the food. Let’s not genetically modified potatoes, for examples, and instead let’s find ways to grow the appropriate amount of potatoes closer to those who demand it. Obviously, in the case of corporations, they are rewarded with money. So, then, let’s reward those who are creating great innovations to help our food systems be more sustainable and efficient. Let’s give tax breaks to people who start rooftop gardens, for example. Let’s give subsidies to vertical farmers. We don’t need our tax money going to maintaining a broken system of too much corn and soy, and too many costly consequences to our health and environment. Let’s give it to the innovators of sustainable food systems!