News  McGill researchers involved in proposition to double world food production

Severe food security issues anticipated as global population rises

Last week, a team of researchers from Canada, the United States, Sweden, and Germany published research in the Nature International Weekly Journal of Science that includes suggestions for a plan that could double the world’s food production.

McGill professors Elena M. Bennett, from the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, and Navin Ramankutty, from the Department of Geography, were two of the researchers that worked on the paper, which states that in order “to meet the world’s future food security and sustainability needs, food production must grow substantially while, at the same time, agriculture’s environmental footprint must shrink dramatically.”

According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), hunger is the world’s number one health risk, and 925 million people do not have enough to eat.

Julie Marshall, spokesperson for the WFP, said, “one in seven people wake up not knowing where they can get food today” as a result of poor food distribution, high food and fuel prices, and a lack of social safety nets.

Furthermore, according to the UN, the world population is on track to surpass 9 billion by 2050, foreshadowing unprecedented demands on agriculture and the environment.

According to Ramankutty, the researchers were looking for a way to meet the world’s future food security needs while at the same time reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture. Research involved analyzing satellite images and agricultural census statistics at the national and subnational levels and to get a fuller picture of what agriculture looks like around the planet.

Ramankutty explained that this allowed them to “spatially determine where to get the biggest bang for the buck” in terms of agricultural productivity.

From the data, the team developed a five-part plan, which included focusing on climate change and biodiversity problems and increasing food production in other parts of the planet.

Ramankutty, who has been a part of this research since he began his PhD at the University of Wisconsin over a decade ago, said that this five-point plan is not new.

“Our contribution is to say that the five-point plan can actually make a big difference and double global food supply,” he said.

He admitted, however, that “feasibility is a huge challenge.”

“It’s a challenge of policy, technology, economics, [and] consumer preferences,” he said.

Randy Shore, who writes “The Green Man” blog for the Vancouver Sun, had similar concerns. In an interview with The Daily, he explained that he has a “more jaundiced view of how quickly we might be able to attack the problem.”

“I have no problems with the research itself,” he explained. “I think it’s typical of scientists to take a view from 30 million feet, looking at the entire planet as a single integrated system.”

According to Shore, the problem is that the world is actually made up of many complex political and economic systems related to food production.

“We’re talking about dismantling subsidy systems ingrained in Canadian, American, and European agriculture,” he said – something he explained would be extremely disruptive to people’s lives.

Shore did, however, recognize progress in waste reduction, explaining that we are already taking small steps towards reclaiming wasted food. He gave examples of programs that redistribute surplus food from restaurants, such as The Food Bank For New York City.

“This will not be done by us alone, but by everyone involved in the issue,” said Ramankutty.