Rethinking business as usual

The way we produce food is getting a lot of attention these days, and for good reason. If current projections hold, we’ll have nine billion mouths to feed by 2050—two billion more than we have today. 

Throughout history, when we’ve needed to expand food production, we’ve gone to nature’s vast storehouse and made withdrawals. In doing so, we’ve filled wetlands, dried up rivers, degraded habitat, and polluted our air and water. 

We’ve already drawn down nature’s account to dangerously low levels, and we still need to produce more.

If we’re going to meet growing needs for food and water, we’re going to have to do it in ways that not only stop harming the environment, but actually improve the ecosystems that serve us. Business as usual just isn’t going to cut it. 

Private sector leads the way

During the past decade, Environmental Defense Fund has been in quiet conversations with the people who bring food to our plate—from retailers, food companies and agribusinesses to the farmers and ranchers themselves—about how to facilitate this transformation. As we’ve toured their facilities and walked their land, we’ve seen some encouraging things.

  • Retailers like Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, and food companies like General Mills and Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, are making the business case for greening their supply chains to reduce financial risk. Their actions are focused on ensuring that the grains they source, for instance, are sustainably grown with minimal impacts to our air and water.
  • Farmers throughout the Midwest are teaching us that it is possible, and profitable, to reduce fertilizer overuse while maintaining or increasing yields. When fertilizer use is optimized, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions and keeps nutrients where they belong—in the crop and not in our waterways.
  • In California, we’re learning from growers like Woolf Farming and Processing how to optimize irrigation efficiency to reduce water use and increase profit margins. If you spread ketchup on your burger, chances are you’ve tasted Woolf’s tomatoes. The family processes 20,000 acres of them in the state’s drought-stricken Central Valley, where maximizing irrigation efficiency isn’t auxiliary—it’s necessary.

A common thread running through these efforts is that they build up nature's bank account by eliminating unnecessary withdrawals and making strategic deposits.

Rethinking business as usual

If we can scale these practices up and make them business as usual, it will go a long way toward increasing the resilience of the natural systems that sustain us. 

Of course, these practices alone won’t solve the bigger challenge of closing the projected gap between food supply and demand in ways that build up nature’s bank account. When it comes to meeting the great food challenge of this century, there is no silver bullet. In addition to using agricultural resources more efficiently, we’ll need to think about food waste, genetics, distribution, diets and more. That looks to us like silver buckshot.

There’s a lot of talk these days about we can feed the world without destroying the planet. My hope is that by sharing our ideas and experiences, we can develop solutions together that benefit people and the ecosystems on which we all depend. After all, food security and the security of our natural environment are one in the same. 


David Festa is an expert on ecosystem resilience and has a long track record of bringing diverse stakeholders together to meet growing needs for food, water and infrastructure in ways that improve the environment and benefit the economy. He is vice president of Environmental Defense Fund's Ecosystems Program. Follow David @davidfesta and EDF @envdefensefund.

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