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Is sustainable agriculture possible?

The people in the room considered themselves responsible for solving the problems faced by farms large and small, feeding a population that grows by 80 million each year, and changing the course of global agriculture as it is known today.

How will we feed 9 billion people by 2050, without destroying the planet?

That was the question asked over and over again at the meeting of agricultural experts at Columbia University in New York that I attended last week. The idea behind the meeting was that current methods of agricultural production cannot be sustained, or as Jeff Sachs, director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, put it at the beginning of the meeting, “We’re here because we can’t go on the way we’re going on. The question Malthus posed – can we feed the planet, slow population, and remain sustainable – is still an open question.”

The view from the meeting

The view from the meeting

The goal was to create a set of metrics for assessing the state of global agriculture. The organizers of the meeting had the idea that if we set up targets for what should be the desirable outcomes for agriculture – for example, making sure that people have access to nutritional food or that agricultural production is not harming the local environment – we’ll have a pathway to making agriculture more productive and sustainable.

We were 15 stories up, in a crowded room with windows offering views of one of the greatest cities in the world, stretched out as far the eye could see. Not a farm in sight. Yet the discussion was focused on issues of subsistence farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, the agricultural practices in the South American tropics, the crop yields and soil nutrients of the American Midwest, and the 1 billion undernourished people around the world, among myriad other concerns. The people in this room considered themselves responsible for solving the problems faced by farms large and small, feeding a population that grows by 80 million each year, and changing the course of global agriculture as it is known today. I honestly felt like I was in the presence of the people who would save the world.

Most of the meeting consisted of scientists, and also agricultural industry and non-profit representatives, giving Power-Point presentations on their work, and addressing the question of how to feed the 9 billion projected by the U.N. for the year 2050. Jon Foley of the University of Minnesota told me in an interview, “We need a third approach to agriculture, somewhere between big agribusiness, and the lessons from organic and local systems. Can we take the best of both of these and invent a more sustainable and scalable agriculture? One that actually can feed the world, but also has much more sustainable practices for the economy and rural livelihoods.” Foley’s work was cited throughout the day. But what will that third approach look like? And how to transition from the current system to a more sustainable system?

It wasn’t until late afternoon that the meeting got around to the actual metrics. Each table in the room became its own small group, discussing which aspects of agriculture and food were the most important, and how easily they could be measured. At my table was Hans Herren, president of the Millenium Institute, and best known for saving the African cassava crop. An impressive man, to say the least. The debate amongst my table-mates (I remained a silent and journalistic observer) was impassioned and interesting, yet not unlike my experience of breaking into small groups in class. Except that instead of students of varying interest and intelligence, the people discussing were deeply experienced, widely respected, and in certain cases had saved Africans from hunger almost single-handedly.

Tom Tomich, director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC-Davis, jumped into the role as everyone’s favorite college professor, yelling out questions and encouragements, and handing people the microphone when they wanted to make a suggestion.

It was in the midst of this very engaged, collegiate-type discussion that I realized something important: no one here had the all answers. Not one single person knew the best way to make agriculture sustainable and feed 9 billion people. While everyone in the room was hopeful, accomplishing this is no sure thing. Good ideas floated 15 stories above New York don’t necessarily translate to sustainability on the ground.

By the end of the meeting, it was clear – if it hadn’t been before – that the pathway to agricultural sustainability will not be a simple journey.

It’s not an issue of better fertilizers or better crop varieties, it’s an issue of scientists, industry, and farmers working together towards an dauntingly large goal – feeding the 9 billion people, or more, on Earth by 2050. We’re just at the beginning of this trek, and we’re not yet agreed on where to start.

Lindsay Patterson