Editor's note: This editorial published on Aug. 13 in The Washington Post.
When the world's population reaches 10 billion in 2050, how will everyone get fed? Actually, a recent report underscored, the challenge is harder: How will everyone get fed without frying the planet?
Climate change is usually associated with power plant smokestacks pumping out carbon dioxide. But a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions results from agriculture and related changes in the way people use land. A study released last month by the United Nations, the World Bank and the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, found that if agriculture gets no more efficient before mid-century, humans will have to wipe out most of the rest of the world's forests, kill off countless species and blow past dangerous global warming thresholds to feed the expanding population. Even if agricultural productivity rises at typical rates, humans will still need to clear land equivalent to twice the size of India. Meanwhile, reforesting land, not clearing it, is high on the to-do list for restraining global greenhouse gas emissions, since growing plants absorb and store carbon dioxide.
Environmentalists have stressed that meat-heavy diets tend to produce lots of emissions, since grazing animals require lots of cleared land, and they produce methane - a potent greenhouse gas - as they digest. One of the study's authors found that the average European's diet produces as many greenhouse gas emissions as her consumption of everything else. Unsurprisingly, the report recommends moderating - though far from eliminating - consumption of red meat.
But that is not the only answer. Humans have to get much better at growing more on less land. Raising cows more quickly, through better managing their feed and other measures, would mean less time grazing and emitting methane before they produce meat for market. New feed additives could also cut how much methane is emitted by grazing animals. Using new gene editing techniques could produce crops that boost farm efficiency and produce fewer greenhouse emissions. Employing new food preservation technologies on produce would prevent useless rot and waste.
A new and more accurate accounting method enabled one of the researchers, Princeton University's Tim Searchinger, to calculate that biofuels are actually environmental villains: "Using ethanol or biodiesel contributes two to three times the greenhouse gas emissions of gasoline or diesel over more than 30 years," he found. Government subsidies for biofuels should end. Meanwhile, governments should enforce strict protections for existing forests, keeping their biodiversity unharmed and tons of carbon dioxide sequestered in their plant growth. Agricultural lands on the margins of usefulness should be restored as forests or peatlands.
In fact, humanity has a surprising range of options to clean up food production and satiate a rapidly growing population. It will just take much more attention and money than is currently spent on these matters. Many of the nations that must preserve their precious forests have not taken the basic steps needed to do so or are threatening to turn back on their commitments, as is the case in Brazil. This picture must change.