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posted by martyb on Tuesday January 11, @04:47PM   Printer-friendly
from the Betteridge-says-"No" dept.

Can We Feed Billions of Ourselves Without Wrecking the Planet?

We are now producing more food more efficiently than ever, and there is plenty to go around for a human population of 7 billion. But it is coming at a drastic cost in environmental degradation, and the bounty is not reaching many people.

Sustainable Food Production, a new Earth Institute primer from Columbia University Press, explores how modern agriculture can be made more environmentally benign, and economically just. With population going to maybe 10 billion within 30 years, the time to start is now, the authors say.

The lead author is ecologist Shahid Naeem, director of the Earth Institute for Environmental Sustainability. He coauthored the book with former Columbia colleagues Suzanne Lipton and Tiff van Huysen.

This is an interesting interview with the author. Do you agree (or disagree) with his conclusions?

Columbia Climate School

[Also Covered By]: Phys.org


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  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Freeman on Tuesday January 11, @06:47PM (17 children)

    by Freeman (732) on Tuesday January 11, @06:47PM (#1211854) Journal

    Instead of doing that, we could come up with more efficient ways of producing edibles. Which we could then use to feed ourselves and everyone else. There are solutions, generally, they cost a bunch of money and would need a bunch of someones in charge that want to see the end goal. Not rake giant piles of money into their own pockets.

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  • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Tuesday January 11, @08:19PM (16 children)

    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Tuesday January 11, @08:19PM (#1211894)

    We've been coming up with more efficient ways of producing edibles for centuries.

    We need to come up with more efficient ways of distributing edibles, not wasting what we produce, not producing what we don't need, not producing edibles on one continent and shipping them to another because "it's profitable" with the current cost of fuel.

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    • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Tuesday January 11, @09:33PM (14 children)

      by Freeman (732) on Tuesday January 11, @09:33PM (#1211928) Journal

      It's going to be much easier / efficient to produce Coconut in the tropics, than to produce Coconut in Canada. Some things make sense to produce in one area of the world and ship-to other areas of the world.

      While waste is good to try and prevent, it's also why the global chip shortage is a thing. Just In Time manufacturing works, when it works. I'd rather have a bit of excess food or even a lot of excess food produced and wasted, than to be stuck on a JIT kind of crazy scheme. Perhaps the biggest problem in overcoming starvation on a global scale, is distribution. Getting the food into the hands of those that need it most. As opposed to into the hands of X group that's in power.

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      • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Wednesday January 12, @02:56AM (13 children)

        by JoeMerchant (3937) on Wednesday January 12, @02:56AM (#1212007)

        I seem to recall a lot of guff about wheat shipments here and there back in the 1970s. Wheat, meat, etc. is a lot more significant than the more visible things like coconut and bananas.

        Also: do Canadians really need to eat so many bananas? Do Costa Ricans really need Maple Syrup?

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        • (Score: 2, Touché) by khallow on Wednesday January 12, @03:24AM (12 children)

          by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday January 12, @03:24AM (#1212015) Journal
          "Need" is a useless way to look at things because everyone's idea of need is different. For most of the world, you, me, Canada, and Costa Rica don't need to exist. If we're basing things strictly on need, well sucks to be the people not making the decisions on need.

          The better approach is want. And well, Canada wants some bananas and Costa Rica wants some maple syrup. So that box is checked, as far as I'm concerned.
          • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Wednesday January 12, @02:57PM (11 children)

            by JoeMerchant (3937) on Wednesday January 12, @02:57PM (#1212108)

            Canada wants some bananas and Costa Rica wants some maple syrup. So that box is checked, as far as I'm concerned.

            As far as I'm concerned, we're borrowing from the future with every ton of CO2 we are emitting today. Until the cost of a banana in a Canadian grocery store reflects the net global impact of what it took to get that banana there, I say that Canadian banana eaters are drowning the homes of helpless children in Bangladesh - among thousands of other highly populated low lying places around the globe. Costa Rican maple syrup consumption isn't quite as impactful, but the same "discounts" on global shipping are still being applied, unfairly for all those who are already and will soon be impacted by them.

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            • (Score: 1) by khallow on Wednesday January 12, @03:28PM (8 children)

              by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday January 12, @03:28PM (#1212124) Journal

              As far as I'm concerned, we're borrowing from the future with every ton of CO2 we are emitting today.

              A lot more than that was borrowed when we created almost 8 billion people, mostly poor and higher than replacement rate fertility, and the infrastructure to support them. Sorry, I don't buy that the optimal way from under that obligation is to look at CO2 emissions.

              Until the cost of a banana in a Canadian grocery store reflects the net global impact of what it took to get that banana there

              Sounds like it does to me. If we're going to play that game you have to weigh the global impact of that emitted CO2 against the global impact of better off Canadians and Costa Ricans.

              I say that Canadian banana eaters are drowning the homes of helpless children in Bangladesh - among thousands of other highly populated low lying places around the globe.

              You have evidence that climate change is more relevant to that than poor disaster preparation? My bet is you can get one to two orders of magnitude improvement in that metric just by instituting proper disaster response systems in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

              This is classic climate change myopia. The effects of small emissions of greenhouse gases are exaggerated while the benefits of the human activity that was derived from that are heavily discounted. You're just paying attention to one side of the balance sheet.

              Here's my take. The developed world is the best game in town. They figured out all the big problems, including overpopulation. I think we're in a unique opportunity to turn the entire world into developed world territory with uniform negative population growth. Sure, that means somewhat higher pollution and resource consumption in the short term. But until you tame population growth, any solutions you find are just one global disaster away from huge human die-offs with serious environmental impact.

              For me, climate change just doesn't rate as a serious problem. I'm not even going to consider it as such until we're seeing significant adjustments needing to be made per decade rather than per few centuries.

              • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Wednesday January 12, @08:56PM (7 children)

                by JoeMerchant (3937) on Wednesday January 12, @08:56PM (#1212205)

                CO2 emissions is just the big one that has been semi-quantified. What it's really representing is externalized costs. Like a factory that gets built beside a river, discharges waste and kills all the fish - all the while being given tax breaks by the locals government officials so they can get their slice of the pie. Lots of externalized costs are willfully ignored, and some were genuinely unknown at the time the business was planned. Both should be factored into the cost of operations, and if that makes a business unprofitable- then it shouldn't be run, because in the bigger picture it is unsustainable, even if it will turn in big quarterly bonuses for a year or 30.

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                • (Score: 1) by khallow on Thursday January 13, @03:16AM (6 children)

                  by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday January 13, @03:16AM (#1212303) Journal

                  CO2 emissions is just the big one that has been semi-quantified. What it's really representing is externalized costs.

                  Lose the big one and you've lost the argument. The rest of those externalities can be mitigated at the source. And the US has done a good job of reducing those externalities.

                  Both should be factored into the cost of operations, and if that makes a business unprofitable- then it shouldn't be run, because in the bigger picture it is unsustainable, even if it will turn in big quarterly bonuses for a year or 30.

                  Unless, of course, it is the externality that should be disregarded. Just because you think an externality is a big deal, doesn't mean the rest of us should.

                  • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Thursday January 13, @02:25PM (5 children)

                    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Thursday January 13, @02:25PM (#1212409)

                    the US has done a good job of reducing those externalities.

                    Last I checked, every river and stream in the greater Houston area (and much of the Texas coast from Galveston into Louisiana) has a fish eating ban due to mercury toxicity. Birds and other predators of course don't respect the ban, so they get mercury poisoning - it has been going on so long that the top level predators aren't dying of it anymore, they're mostly already dead in those areas.

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                    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday January 14, @04:59AM (4 children)

                      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday January 14, @04:59AM (#1212610) Journal
                      Last you checked... is mercury released over the past century somehow nicer than mercury released now? I'll just note that it takes a long time for environmentally mobile mercury to get locked up. In the meantime, it's going to kill birds for a long time to come.
                      • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Friday January 14, @02:29PM (3 children)

                        by JoeMerchant (3937) on Friday January 14, @02:29PM (#1212667)

                        Until population gets too big, the solution to pollution really is dilution. The bottom of the Miami river is not being dredged and is only open to shallow draft ships because of all the toxic waste locked up under the silt. The reason mercury is circulating in the environment is because we dug it up and released it. It does re-bury itself, slowly. Our switch from coal to natural gas has dramatically reduced mercury emissions, but we're still far from "doing a great job" about taking care of the environment. 2006 Houston was blanketing the town in soot and all kinds of crap from the fuel refinery that got on-shored after the offshore platforms got wiped by Katrina/Rita. All that crap was being dumped in the Gulf when the offshore refineries were running. It's well known among local anglers that snapper and other species of desirable food fish gather at the drill sites, but when you catch them there you can literally taste the crude oil in the meat.

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                        • (Score: 1) by khallow on Saturday January 15, @01:30PM (2 children)

                          by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Saturday January 15, @01:30PM (#1212904) Journal

                          Our switch from coal to natural gas has dramatically reduced mercury emissions, but we're still far from "doing a great job" about taking care of the environment.

                          Ok, you just complained about mercury as an example of how the US wasn't doing a great job about taking care of the environment and now, we see it wasn't a good example.

                          2006 Houston was blanketing the town in soot and all kinds of crap from the fuel refinery that got on-shored after the offshore platforms got wiped by Katrina/Rita.

                          How often do emergencies like Katrina and Rita happen to the oil industry? Sorry, just because an emergency happened doesn't mean that the US isn't taking care of its environment.

                          It's well known among local anglers that snapper and other species of desirable food fish gather at the drill sites, but when you catch them there you can literally taste the crude oil in the meat.

                          Maybe shouldn't do that then.

                          • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Sunday January 16, @05:59PM (1 child)

                            by JoeMerchant (3937) on Sunday January 16, @05:59PM (#1213176)

                            the US wasn't doing a great job about taking care of the environment and now, we see it wasn't a good example.

                            Depends on your definition of "great job" better than flaming rivers and 100% of lakes 100% dead from acid rain, yeah, we're beating that standard - now.

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            • (Score: 1) by khallow on Wednesday January 12, @04:27PM

              by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday January 12, @04:27PM (#1212151) Journal
              I find it bizarre how you transitioned from the concern of your earlier post "We need to come up with more efficient ways of distributing edibles" to the present complaints about Canadians not needing bananas and the global impact of climate change. My take is that we need that distribution of edibles, we don't need to perfectly freeze climate change.

              There are other things missing from your considerations. Even if Canadians don't need bananas and Costa Ricans don't need maple syrup, they do need food. So these wants, you described, displace needs. Second, people really do need a varied diet even if they don't need these particular things - it remains far easier to deliver a varied diet by shipping it from overseas with different growing seasons than to grow everything locally. Third, the inefficiencies in the edibles supply chain aren't the shipping to and from Canada. That's really efficient.

              Fourth, you're proposing various ideas that would lower the efficiency of international transport of food. If we don't ship food that is merely wanted instead of needed, for example, then we greatly increase the cost of the needed food since the cost of edible-specialized transportation systems are distributed over far less goods than before. If we surcharge for some imaginary high cost of CO2 emissions, we also lower the efficiency of transportation systems that depend on fossil fuel burning.

              This thread is the usual weird stuff, Joe. You said something was important earlier on. But now you're throwing that away for something else more nebulous. And we have yet to see a problem in the things you're complaining about. So what if Canadians and Costa Ricans get exotic food for a small amount of CO2 emissions? Stopping that won't make distributing edibles more efficient and have no detectable effect on greenhouse gases emissions.
            • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 16, @01:50AM

              by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 16, @01:50AM (#1213052)

              Offtopic, but I read your linked Galt story.

              Are you proposing this as sanity, or a sort of cautionary tale about incoherence? Because it's like watching one side of an argument between a pair of lunatics. What the hell is the point?

    • (Score: 2, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 11, @09:51PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 11, @09:51PM (#1211936)

      Growing food in the most productive area for it and shipping it (as in literal ships) to where it is needed has been going on for thousands of years.