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Feeding the World Through Smarter Agriculture

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How can we meet the world's increasing demands for food, water and energy without degrading the natural systems we depend on for survival?

Last week, I had the privilege of addressing this question at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference, where hundreds of business, government and nonprofit leaders gathered to discuss the intersection of business and the environment.

There is general consensus on the nature -- and urgency -- of the challenges we face. The world's population is expected to grow by an additional 2.3 billion by 2050. World food supply will need to double by then, not just to feed these extra people, but to support the more resource-intensive, protein-rich diets of an expanding middle class. Over a few short decades, agriculture must find ways to convert less habitat; use water more efficiently; and manage land, soil and water in ways that strengthen, not degrade, the environmental services they provide.

Solving these challenges will require sound science, innovation and partnership. To that end, I was pleased to share the stage at Fortune Brainstorm conference with Cargill CEO Greg Page. Later in the week, I joined General Mills CEO Ken Powell in kicking off the company's sustainability summit. In the past, these might have been unusual pairings. But today, agricultural and food companies like Cargill and General Mills are collaborating with conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy to develop a smarter world food system.

What would this agricultural system look like?

The buzzword for this system is sustainable intensification. Simply put, we need to produce more food with fewer resources, in an environmentally sustainable way.

Doubling food production by doubling agricultural lands is not an option. Beyond the ecological havoc this would wreak, there simply isn't enough land available. Agriculture already uses 40 percent of the world's land, and much of the remainder is unsuitable for planting or grazing. Water presents a similar picture: agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global water consumption. As global water scarcity intensifies, companies risk running out of clean water for their operations.

So agriculture has to get smarter. Between now and 2050, it has to convert much less habitat, increase yields on existing farm and pasture lands and use water and other resources more efficiently. Fertilizer has to be used in a way that minimizes pollution. All this has to be done while adapting to shifting weather patterns and a more unpredictable climate.

Of course, this intensification has to be sustainable. This is not easy. An increase in returns per acre can stimulate agricultural expansion and damage nearby lands and waters. To avoid these negative impacts, The Nature Conservancy is working both to minimize further conversion of land by conserving natural habitat and to help farmers and ranchers improve their productivity and reduce their impact on surrounding areas.

In Brazil, for example, we are working with Cargill to help soy farmers comply with the country's Forest Code -- a law stipulating that farmers and ranchers maintain percentages of their land in native habitat -- up to 80% in the Amazon -- or compensate for past deforestation by preserving native habitat elsewhere. Since 2006, Cargill has purchased soy only from farmers the Conservancy verifies are complying with the Forest Code, with the Conservancy helping the company to design the tracking and monitoring systems they need to make their compliance commitment work. This successful collaboration, which began with 180 local farmers, has been a model for similar projects across the Amazon, Cerrado grasslands and the Atlantic Forest, covering over 100 million acres and engaging tens of thousands of farmers.

Another example is the Keystone Field to Market initiative, a diverse alliance of producers, agribusinesses, food companies and environmental organizations. Working across the agricultural supply chain, the group is developing collaborative solutions to help increase agricultural productivity while minimizing environmental impacts. For example, the initiative's Fieldprint Calculator shows growers how management decisions on the farm affect soil quality and levels of water use, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity habitat, as well as their bottom line.

The ultimate success of these kinds of initiatives will depend on reaching many thousands of farmers. That's why we believe it is critical to engage the large companies who source from and sell to those farmers. Influencing the decision-making and business practices of companies that play a major role in the way the world's food is produced magnifies our reach far beyond what we could accomplish alone.

Finally, the environmental community must continue to demonstrate the important benefits and services that healthy lands and waters provide to people. For example, in the Mississippi River Valley -- the heart of our nation's agricultural economy -- our work to help farmers improve their sustainability efforts is about more than protecting wildlife habitat. Agricultural runoff is a major contributor to the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, an area of low oxygen that costs the U.S. seafood and tourism industry an estimated $82 million per year. The smart use of cover crops during winter months can significantly reduce nutrient pollution without reducing the amount of land in agriculture. Restored wetlands also play a key role in filtering this pollution from the water, providing valuable fish and wildlife habitat, and helping mitigate flooding downstream.

Venues like Fortune Brainstorm Green are encouraging signs for the kinds of collaboration that will be necessary to ensure that nature continues to provide the food, clean water, energy and other services our growing population depends on for survival. To feed that growing population in a sustainable way, agricultural companies must think more like conservationists. And likewise, conservationists must recognize that doubling the world's food production means we need to work collaboratively with farmers, ranchers and agribusiness to identify where and how to do that most responsibly.