04/21/2014 04:52 pm ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

If Food Could Fly

Imagine that food could fly. Seriously, imagine it. Apples and oranges could fly from the orchards to the supermarket, or better yet fly directly into your kitchen. Potatoes and carrots could rise up from the earth, dust themselves off, and fly right into your pantry. Livestock could fly from the pasture to the packinghouse and the steaks could fly into your freezer. Imagine how much cheaper food would be, and how much less would be wasted. In the US, transportation and packaging account for about seven percent of what we pay for food. Globally, the UN estimates that about one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption never makes it to our tables.

But food does not fly, unless we're talking about wildfowl. Nor will food ever fly, even genetically modified food. Someday food may be delivered to our doorsteps by drone, but food itself will never fly. If we want a serious answer to the world's food challenge, we must look elsewhere.

This month's National Geographic has a cover story by Jonathan Foley, an internationally recognized food expert, on "The New Food Revolution." Foley warns that world population could increase from 7.2 billion to roughly 9.6 billion by 2050. Factor in changing diets (i.e. the world's increasing appetite for meat) and Foley says the demand for food could double over the next 36 years.

Can we feed 9.6 billion people without destroying the environment? Foley says it's possible and he lays out five steps for doing so. They are:

• Stop converting more forests and grasslands into farmland and pasture;
• Increase crop yields in Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe;
• Reduce the wasteful application of water, fertilizers, and pesticides;
• Eat less meat; and
• Reduce food waste.

These steps are significantly more plausible than "flying food," and taken together, they may offer some hope of meeting the global food challenge, but how much? Foley himself admits that "it won't be easy." He says that doing all this will "require a big shift in thinking" and that we "need to figure out how to do it."

And there's the rub. Time is running out, and the obstacles are formidable. Deforestation is driven by the world's growing demand for timber, palm oil, and soybeans. Some countries have stopped deforestation, but that makes it even more profitable to deforest lands in other countries. We desperately need to boost crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa, but many farmers in Africa lack the roads and transportation infrastructure to get their existing surpluses to market. Yes, we need to reduce the wasteful application of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, but as long as it is profitable to overuse them, farmers will. For reasons of both health and food security, we absolutely need to reduce meat consumption, but lower demand for meat in the U.S. tends to reduce global meat prices, making meat a little more affordable to consumers in China and other emerging economies. And, yes, we should do far more to reduce food waste, but as consumers become more affluent they tend to waste more food, not less.

In all these instances, market forces are working against us, and no one should underestimate the difficulty of overcoming them. Global cooperation is required. At a minimum, the U.S. and other donor nations should boost their foreign agricultural assistance, but support over the past two decades has dropped precipitously. It would also be helpful to see a global consensus on curbing meat consumption, but how, short of coercive measures, will that consensus be supported? Foley's article leaves these and other questions unanswered.

Foley's article also understates the magnitude of the food challenge. It's not enough to grow enough food to feed 9.6 billion people and to do so without destroying the environment. The food that we grow has to be affordable to the world's urban poor living on $2 a day or less. As demonstrated by the food riots that accompanied two global food crises in the past decade, food can easily be priced out of the reach of many urban households. While it may be technically feasible to boost food production by 50 or even 100 percent, there is no assurance that rising food prices can be contained. That's because climate change, water scarcity, and other factors will tend to increase the costs of food production and could -- despite the best efforts of farmers and governments -- push the prices of corn, wheat, and other basic food stuffs beyond the household budgets of the urban poor.

It's not enough to point the way to a possible solution. As a leading agricultural authority, Foley needs to tell the world if we are likely to fall short. Just as doctors owe their patients an accurate prognosis; food experts need to warn us if a global food crunch is likely. There may yet be a realistic "way" to close the food gap, but -- as with climate change -- there may not be the necessary "will."

If we cannot realistically expect to feed 9.6 billion people by 2050 at affordable prices, the world needs to do a much better job of preventing unintended pregnancies. Currently about 40 percent of the world's pregnancies are unplanned. Preventing unplanned pregnancies in the U.S. and other high-food consuming countries would certainly make the global food challenge more manageable. And preventing unplanned pregnancies in poorer countries could help those countries avert a future food crisis, particularly in regions affected by climate change or areas suffering from widespread hunger and malnutrition.

Even without a looming food crisis, every woman in the world should be able to space or limit her pregnancies, but in a hungry, food-insecure world, contraception takes on crucial importance. Until the food challenge is squarely met, prudence dictates that we should be expanding domestic and international support for voluntary family planning, and in the developing world we should be promoting smaller, healthier families by educating girls, empowering women, and eliminating child marriage.

Foley's five-step plan for meeting the global food challenge should be vigorously pursued, but let's not "bet the farm" on it being fully successful. In the long run, lowering population growth rates may be the least expensive and most reliable way to meet the global food challenge.