Quinn on Nutrition: The sustainability question

April 8, 2019

How can we sustainably feed the 10 billion people projected to be on this earth by 2050? It’s a question being discussed by various experts, especially those who produce our food.

What IS sustainability? According to an article on this topic in a recent issue of “Successful Farming,” it relates to a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged. That means, to adequately feed our world in the decades to come, we need to be good stewards of our land and water. The challenge? In the face of dwindling land for food production, farmers and ranchers need to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 that supplies all the essential nutrients to sustain our needs.

In short, says Walter Willett from the Harvard School of Public Health, we need to produce foods that are sustainable, nutritious and delicious.

But the answers are not easy, say experts. Although a big chunk (forgive the pun) of our world is becoming more obese, 800 million are severely malnourished. And the best available evidence shows us that the foods in a healthful diet can be quite varied and diverse from culture to culture, says Willett. In general, the best diet for long term health is rich in nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes and still includes some meat, dairy and fish. So how do we produce enough of this highly nutritious food to feed our growing population without disturbing the integrity of our water, soil and atmosphere?

Research agronomist Tom Rabaey says we need to mimic nature to strengthen the sustainability of our food supply. Farmers who adopt no-till ways of planting crops, for example, help save valuable top soil. And they are getting smarter — both economically and environmentally — with more judicious ways of using pesticides. And although Willett says we can’t yet feed the whole world with totally organic methods, “we can possibly employ more organic principles in farming practices.”

Sustainable food systems depend on both plants and animals, according to a recent study published by researchers at Virginia Tech and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. A world without food animals would lack essential nutrients and upset our balanced food ecosystem, say these researchers.

Surprisingly, although cattle are blamed for a large percentage of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, I was surprised to learn that beef produced in the U.S. accounts for only 2 percent of this country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Rather, the largest carbon footprint in the U.S. comes from our other appetites — transportation (28 percent) and the production of electricity (29.7 percent).

Experts also say we need to stop wasting food. Food waste that ends up in the garbage contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, says the EPA.

The good news: Many ways of eating can be sustainable. And amid all the concern and controversy surrounding how our food is produced, if we eat today, we can thank farmers and ranchers who work hard to feed us.


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services