I just heard this story on NPR's All Things Considered, which is ostensibly about this new article by Jonathan Foley and a hefty team of coauthors.
What they do is describe a five things we need to do to feed the world--which means roughly doubling global food production--without destroying it.
The five things are:
1. Stop cutting down forests to grow crops or establish grazing lands for livestock.
2. Increase productivity in places that currently have low productivity, particularly Africa and Eastern Europe.
3. Use water and fertilizer more efficiently
4. Reduce food waste
5. Eat less meat.
Their recommendations seem to make sense. But, as Tom Hertel said in the NPR story, these are not strategies that get implemented by design. World agriculture is an insanely big thing that uses about 40 percent of the world's land area. It's hard to talk about these big picture goals without talking about the mechanisms that get you there.
People do what they do today in large part because of (a) prices (b) tastes and preferences and (c) institutional constraints. We use water inefficiently because it, or the energy used to extract it from the ground, is insanely subsidized in many places. We eat meat and waste food in rich countries because, to us, food is incredibly cheap. Leaders of some relatively poorer countries waste food by holding large inventories (some of which spoils) to guard against food price spikes, which can provoke widespread hunger and insecurity. We use fertilizer inefficiently because there are few regulations that make farmers pay for the nutrient runoff that poisons the water. And getting the relatively rich to eat less meat might be difficult, as a taste for meat seems deeply ingrained in our psyches; if we can afford it we eat it.
It's good to have this paper to lay out the broad perspective. And their solutions, such as they are, reflect some reasonable goals. What's a lot less clear is how we achieve those goals given today's prices, tastes and institutional constraints.
Economists might recommend some regulatory strategies to curb deforestation and pollution from inefficient fertilizer applications. Higher food prices may encourage more efficiency. But higher prices probably means a lot more hungry people. If the point is to feed the world, we need to keep prices low.
Also, the politics involved with implementing the obviously beneficial policies--like pollution taxes--is daunting. And other problems, like reforming water rights and pricing so farmers have an incentive use more efficient irrigation techniques, face impossible legal challenges that vary widely from country to country and watershed to watershed. Increasing productivity in developing countries is as difficult as development policy itself.
Maybe the growing mountain of evidence that meat is unhealthy will encourage the rich to eat less of it. I'd like to think people would voluntarily eat less meat and thereby keep food affordable in less developed nations. But that seems like more wishful thinking than viable strategy.
These are tough challenges. At least more people are paying attention to them.