THE QUESTION of how to feed the world is almost overwhelming in its complexity and it deservedly receives much attention from politicians, businesses and civil society. From out of the pack, the concept of “sustainable intensification” has emerged as the dominant paradigm of the 21st century with its goal of increasing food production from existing farmland while minimising pressure on the environment.
But does the assumption that we need to produce more food to feed a growing population get challenged enough?
On the fringes of the policy debate are those who point out that we currently produce more than enough food to feed the world and that it is uneven distribution and high levels of food waste that are the principal causes of third world hunger.
Another theory is that we could achieve far greater efficiencies from current farmland without intensifying production at all, were we to adopt a new approach to land use. A recent study published in the Environmental Research Letters journal considered agricultural productivity in terms of people fed per hectare rather than the more traditional measure of tonnes per hectare. The researchers found that growing food exclusively for human consumption – rather than diverting it to biofuels or animal feed – could potentially increase available calories by 70%, which could feed an additional four billion people.
Naturally there are counter-arguments in favour of diverting food crops to produce biofuels and feeding grains to animals to meet growing demand for meat in the developing world. The point is not that one view is right and the other is wrong. The point is that it’s important to challenge dominant paradigms – particularly when the questions they seek to answer are of such fundamental importance to all of our futures.