Sean Smukler: First steps in feeding 9 billion

How do we improve Earth’s food systems to meet the challenge of feeding our growing population? The first step, says Smuckler, is to observe and measure the way we farm now.

By 2050, our planet might need to feed 9 billion people. How do we improve Earth’s food systems – the way food is grown, harvested, transported, and distributed – to meet that challenge? The first step is to observe and measure the way we farm now, according to a group of 25 food and agriculture experts, who have proposed building a global network to collect information about food systems worldwide.

Sean Smukler: To improve the system we have right now, we need to know what works where, and why.

Sean Smukler is an agricultural ecologist at Columbia University and a co-author of the July 2010 article published in the journal Nature. He said creating a common system of measurements – for example, how many calories a farming region can provide per person, or how much energy is expended per unit of food – will help move the world toward farming methods that can feed 9 billion people.

Sean Smukler: We’d really like to provide people with better information to discuss things like organic or conventional production – things that are commonly debated today with so little information.

He said that evaluating food systems is not just about how much food is grown. It’s also about the farm’s effect on nearby nature and water, energy use, and how it impacts peoples’ lives.

Sean Smukler: We want to be able to know how to transition effectively to a vibrant, healthy, equitable, and environmentally sustainable global food system.

Smukler and his co-authors want the data collectors to agree on the most important measurable aspects of the food system – whether it’s food and nutrition security, human health, the economic prosperity that farming brings to a region, the impact on the environment, as well as the impact on the community. He said that today, there are many organizations collecting data about global agriculture. But the problem is that each organization is measuring different aspects of farming.

Sean Smukler: We’re really envisioning a decentralized data collection process. We don’t want to have everyone stop monitoring the data they are currently collecting. Right now, although there’s not a common set of metrics, we think it’s possible to get everyone to agree on this minimum data set.

In other words, Smukler and his co-authors want the data collectors to agree on the most important measurable aspects of the food system – whether it’s food security, human health, the economic prosperity that farming brings to a region, the impact on the environment, as well as the impact on the community.

Sean Smukler: What we’re concerned about is more than just production – meaning, the yield available. We’re concerned about environmental outcomes like greenhouse gas emissions, land use change, or impacts to biodiversity. Or social and economic outcomes would be something like the social cohesion of the community, or distribution of jobs in an agricultural landscape, or the returns to a farm in terms of profit.

The data will be collected from areas that are representative of different climates and farming conditions – for example, farming in California is drastically different from farming in Kenya. Smukler said once the data is collected, it will be entered into computer models that will be able to apply the information to other areas of the world that haven’t been directly studied.

Sean Smukler: We want to be able to tell people, if you choose this type of management in this location, these are the results you’re going to get.

Lindsay Patterson