Speaking of rainforests, agriculture in tropical areas is increasing rapidly, yet your study says we could stop this growth altogether with little to no loss in food production. Can you explain that?
We found that agriculture in tropical areas yields limited food calories – most of it is going to crops like sugarcane, palm oil, and soybeans for animal feed or biofuel. Ceasing agricultural expansion into the tropics would have an impact on global food crops, but it would be small and we could offset those losses elsewhere.
It’s about the trade-offs. We lose rainforests, with huge impacts to climate change, but we don’t feed many people. Instead, we’re better off improving production in places where we currently farm than clearing more rainforests.
Improving crop production and yields aren’t new ideas. What makes your approach different?
Yes, these things are already happening. But our study looks at it from a new perspective. Instead of trying to get high-performing farmlands to perform even better, we found that improving the lower-performing farmlands could dramatically increase the amount of food produced.
For instance, if we close the “yield gaps” in underperforming regions of Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe, food production could be increased by 60 percent. Closing “yield gaps” means helping poor farming regions meet their potential with basic improvements, like better use of crop varieties, irrigation, and fertilizer – giving them access to these things, and helping them manage their land better.
Our idea is focus on lifting the people near the bottom of the floor up closer to the ceiling, rather than lifting the ceiling higher. We need to change our approach to agriculture. Instead of sitting back and waiting for famine to strike, let’s ask: How can we prevent the next big famine?
What about organic farming—does it have a role to play in solving the global food problem?