Humans' Agricultural Footprint Threatens Global Food Supply

The worldwide food crisis is not new: for decades, scientists have suggested that the world is running out of food for its growing population. But why is this happening, and what can humans do about it?

Farming uses a lot of valuable natural resources including rivers, lakes, and coastal ecosystems. Growing crops creates a runoff of fertilizers, which are major pollutants. Also, the loss of biodiversity is quickened by agriculture: simply put, as grasslands are cleared for farms, important animal habitats disappear, thus inadvertently driving the extinction of wildlife. Environmental challenges caused by agriculture are immense and will become more problematic if humans don’t address them soon.

According to scientists who study the global population, the Earth will likely be home to nine billion people by the year 2050. Population growth isn’t the only reason we’ll need more food, however. The spread of wealth around the world also increases the global demand for meat, eggs, and dairy-especially in China and India. This demand for protein boosts pressure on farmers to grow more corn and soybeans to feed their growing populations of cattle, pigs, and chickens. In turn, as more land is needed to support more livestock, additional natural resources are depleted.

According to a recent study referenced in National Geographic, there are two key ways humans can continue to feed the world: freeze our agricultural footprint and reduce food waste.

Throughout history, humans have cut down forests and plowed grassland to make more farms when we’ve needed to produce more food. In fact, over the centuries, farmers have cleared an area roughly the size of South America to grow crops and taken over an area roughly the size of Africa to raise livestock. Agriculture’s impact has nearly wiped out whole ecosystems including the prairies of North America and the Atlantic forest of Brazil. And today, tropical forests continue to be cleared at a rapid pace. Therefore, controlling our agricultural footprint is one of the two major ways humans can increase food accessibility around the world.

According to the same National Geographic study, the second measure that could help feed the world is to reduce food waste. Currently, about 25 percent of the world’s food calories and about 50 percent of the total food weight are wasted or lost before they are consumed. In wealthy countries, this waste occurs in many places including homes, restaurants, and supermarkets. Consumers can reduce food waste by eating smaller portions and leftovers, and encouraging cafeterias, households, restaurants, and supermarkets to adapt waste-reducing measures. And in poverty-stricken countries, unreliable storage and transportation spur the loss of food between farms and markets. In said countries, greater efficiency in transporting food to markets could help feed more individuals.

Such changes will not be easy, but they are necessary to ensure that we can feed future generations.

[Sources: National Geographic Magazine;]