When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner.
Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined—largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. The environmental challenges posed by agriculture are huge, and they’ll only become more pressing as we try to meet the growing need for food worldwide. Unfortunately the debate over how to address the global food challenge has become polarized, pitting conventional agriculture and global commerce against local food systems and organic farms. I was fortunate to lead a team of scientists who confronted this simple question: How can the world double the availability of food while simultaneously cutting the environmental harm caused by agriculture? Starting in the 1960s, the green revolution increased yields in Asia and Latin America using better crop varieties and more fertilizer, irrigation, and machines—but with major environmental costs. It would easier to feed the planet if more of the crops we grew ended up in human stomachs.
Increasing yields on underperforming farms could significantly boost the worlda€™s food supply.
Nearly all new food production in the next 25 years will have to come from existing agricultural land. Improving nutrient and water supplies where yields are lowest could result in a 58 percent increase in global food production.
We already have ways to achieve high yields while also dramatically reducing the environmental impacts of conventional farming. Organic farming can also greatly reduce the use of water and chemicals—by incorporating cover crops, mulches, and compost to improve soil quality, conserve water, and build up nutrients. It would be far easier to feed nine billion people by 2050 if more of the crops we grew ended up in human stomachs. An estimated 25 percent of the world’s food calories and up to 50 percent of total food weight are lost or wasted before they can be consumed.
Taken together, these five steps could more than double the world’s food supplies and dramatically cut the environmental impact of agriculture worldwide. This is a pivotal moment when we face unprecedented challenges to food security and the preservation of our global environment. The magazine thanks The Rockefeller Foundation and members of the National Geographic Society for their generous support of this series of articles. Osage, IowaPhotographs by Amy ToensingOn our nation’s richest lands, farmers grow corn and soybeans used to feed livestock, make cooking oil, and produce sweeteners.
Bronx, New YorkPhotographs by Stephanie SinclairUrban neighborhoods with pervasive unemployment and poverty are home to the hungriest. On a gold-gray morning in Mitchell County, Iowa, Christina Dreier sends her son, Keagan, to school without breakfast. On this particular afternoon Dreier is worried about the family van, which is on the brink of repossession. In the United States more than half of hungry households are white, and two-thirds of those with children have at least one working adult—typically in a full-time job. To witness hunger in America today is to enter a twilight zone where refrigerators are so frequently bare of all but mustard and ketchup that it provokes no remark, inspires no embarrassment.
More than 48 million Americans rely on what used to be called food stamps, now SNAP: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Though all three adults work full-time, their income is not enough to keep the family consistently fed without assistance. Like most of the new American hungry, the Jeffersons face not a total absence of food but the gnawing fear that the next meal can’t be counted on. Jacqueline Christian is another Houston mother who has a full-time job, drives a comfortable sedan, and wears flattering clothes. On a day that includes running a dozen errands and charming her payday loan officer into giving her an extra day, Christian picks up Ja’Zarrian and her seven-year-old, Jerimiah, after school. Christian pulls into the drive-through and orders a combo of fried gizzards and okra for $8.11.
To supplement what they get from the food pantry, the cash-strapped Reams family forages in the woods near their Osage home for puffball mushrooms and grapes.
Of course it is possible to eat well cheaply in America, but it takes resources and know-how that many low-income Americans don’t have. But most of the working poor don’t have the time or know-how required to eat well on little. It’s a cruel irony that people in rural Iowa can be malnourished amid forests of cornstalks running to the horizon. These are the very crops that end up on Christina Dreier’s kitchen table in the form of hot dogs made of corn-raised beef, Mountain Dew sweetened with corn syrup, and chicken nuggets fried in soybean oil. Those priorities are reflected at the grocery store, where the price of fresh food has risen steadily while the cost of sugary treats like soda has dropped. When Christina Dreier’s cupboards start to get bare, she tries to persuade her kids to skip snack time. Tracie McMillan is the author of The American Way of Eating and a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Using hand tools and draft animals, a family harvests wheat in Ethiopia’s famine-prone highlands. Small Farmers, Big Questions Large agriculture companies are taking an interest in Africa’s arable land. Humanitarian groups that deal with global hunger and peasants’ rights call corporate land deals neocolonialism and agri-imperialism. This land outside Maputo provides a snapshot of Africa’s agricultural choices: Will its food be produced on giant, leveled plantations like Bananalandia (at left) or on small farms, called machambas? Fertile land, skyrocketing demand for soybeans and rice, and a government willing to cut big land deals have put the former Portuguese colony at the center of the land rush sweeping the continent. At left, Mary Mukarukaka, 36, peels and ties maize husks with her children on their farm in Rwanda. With the right policies, small farmers can be extremely productive, Kuyek says, pointing to the rice farmers of Vietnam or the small dairy farmers in Kenya, who supply more than 70 percent of the nation’s milk. Ajiem Ogalla, 11, scavenges for awieo, an edible shrub, amid corn planted by the Indian firm Karuturi Global, which holds part of a large agricultural lease in Ethiopia’s remote Gambela region. A few miles down a washboard dirt road from Hoyo Hoyo, a soybean farm run by a retired schoolteacher is an example of a productive middle path. Gouws believes in a mix of big and little farms, with small farmers raising cattle and tending plots of land as a safety net and source of pride, and big farms like his bringing in roads, power, and infrastructure that the government does not provide. The key is leveraging that investment to yield benefits for all, ensuring secure land rights, thriving markets, and increased productivity on all farms, big and small. Berbera (left), where these sheep and goats are being led to the ship bound for Saudi Arabia, has been a key port for Arab traders since the second century. Berbera, where these sheep and goats are being led to the ship bound for Saudi Arabia, has been a key port for Arab traders since the second century.
Workers herd livestock aboard a ship in Berbera, Somaliland, that is headed to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
On a long road in the heart of the proposed ProSavana project, I stop at a mud-brick hut to talk with Costa Ernesto, a 35-year-old farmer, and his wife, Cecilia Luis. Two other men walk up during the conversation, and I ask if they would give up their small farms for a job on a big farm.
Whether Mozambique’s future farmers will look more like industrial farmers in Iowa or the small but productive rice farmers of Vietnam remains to be seen. Esther Nyirahabimana winnows soybeans on a small farm in Rwanda, having been given seeds, fertilizer, and training by the nonprofit One Acre Fund. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. The arguments can be fierce, and like our politics, we seem to be getting more divided rather than finding common ground. After analyzing reams of data on agriculture and the environment, we proposed five steps that could solve the world’s food dilemma. Many farmers have also gotten smarter about water, replacing inefficient irrigation systems with more precise methods, like subsurface drip irrigation.
Production will have to far outpace population growth as the developing world grows prosperous enough to eat more meat.
The good news is that we already know what we have to do; we just need to figure out how to do it. Jim Richardson’s portraits of farmers are the latest in his body of work documenting agriculture.
We sent three photographers to explore hunger in three very different parts of the United States, each giving different faces to the same statistic: One-sixth of Americans dona€™t have enough food to eat. Yet one in eight Iowans often goes hungry, with children the most vulnerable to food insecurity.
The South Bronx has the highest rate of food insecurity in the country, 37 percent, compared with 16.6 for New York City as a whole. He is three years old, barrel-chested, and stubborn, and usually refuses to eat the free meal he qualifies for at preschool.


Keagan ignores the school breakfast on offer and is so hungry by lunchtime that Dreier picks through the dregs of her freezer in hopes of filling him and his little sister up.
She and Jim need to open a new bank account so they can make automatic payments instead of scrambling to pay in cash. The image of hunger in America today differs markedly from Depression-era images of the gaunt-faced unemployed scavenging for food on urban streets. Here dinners are cooked using macaroni-and-cheese mixes and other processed ingredients from food pantries, and fresh fruits and vegetables are eaten only in the first days after the SNAP payment arrives.
SNAP recipients typically run through their monthly allotment in three weeks, then turn to food pantries. The town of Spring, Texas, is where ranchland meets Houston’s sprawl, a suburb of curving streets and shade trees and privacy fences. When Meme shows me the family’s food supply, the refrigerator holds takeout boxes and beverages but little fresh food. It takes three declined credit cards and an emergency loan from her mother, who lives nearby, before she can pay for it.
Kyera Reams cans homegrown vegetables when they are in season and plentiful, so that her family can eat healthfully all year. Kyera Reams of Osage, Iowa, puts an incredible amount of energy into feeding her family of six a healthy diet, with the help of staples from food banks and $650 in monthly SNAP benefits. Like the Reamses, they’ve sown patches of vegetables and a stretch of sweet corn in the large green yard carved out of the cornfields behind their house. It’s just those dicey moments, after a new bill arrives or she needs gas to drive the kids to town, that make it hard. Subsidies reduce crop prices but also support the abundance of processed foods, which are more affordable but less nutritious. Photographers Kitra Cahana, Stephanie Sinclair, and Amy Toensing are known for their intimate, sensitive portraits of people. Agriculture isn’t just about growing food; it includes trees and other plants that produce fiber, control wind erosion, and shade livestock. Education has helped small farmers become more efficient, but wheat yields are still a third below the world’s average. Thailand currently exports more agricultural products than all sub-Saharan countries combined, and the specter of climate change threatens to hammer Africa’s yields. Yet veterans of agricultural development say the massive infusion of private cash, infrastructure, and technology that such deals may bring to poor rural areas could be a catalyst for desperately needed development—if big projects and small farmers can work together. In 2013 the nation was the third poorest on the planet, with almost half its children under five stunted by malnutrition. A return to civil unrest is the only thing that could upset the river of cash flowing into Mozambique. Getting a massive corporate farm up and running and turning a profit in the midst of often hostile neighbors is something else entirely. At right, also in Rwanda, 60-year-old farmer Joseph Nindekwet shells beans from this season’s harvest.
In 2009 the government signed an agreement with Brazil and Japan to develop an agricultural megaproject dubbed ProSavana, which would make almost 35 million acres of northern Mozambique available for industrial-scale soybean production, possibly the largest such land deal ever reported. After displacing villagers and cutting down native forests, the company is deeply in debt and struggling to avoid bankruptcy.
Armando Afonso Catxava began growing vegetables in his spare time on a small plot of land and over the years has cobbled together about 64 acres. Farmers each get seven visits a season from the company’s extension agents, who teach them the basics of conservation agriculture and the use of inexpensive seed treatments, instead of expensive fertilizer, to boost yields. Dries Gouws, a former surgeon in Zambia, planted 30 acres of banana trees on a bankrupt citrus farm outside of Maputo 14 years ago. A recent conference for agricultural investors in New York drew some 800 financial leaders from around the globe who manage nearly three trillion dollars in investments. In the three years after Saudi Arabia ended its ban on Somali livestock, imports grew fivefold, to three million animals in 2012. Given their ragged clothing, their swollen bellies, their sod houses, their obvious poverty, the question seems almost unfair. Small farmers can produce as much per acre as large farms if seeds and fertilizer are affordable.
Those who favor conventional agriculture talk about how modern mechanization, irrigation, fertilizers, and improved genetics can increase yields to help meet demand.
We would be wise to explore all of the good ideas, whether from organic and local farms or high-tech and conventional farms, and blend the best of both. To raise livestock, we’ve taken over even more land, an area roughly the size of Africa.
Using high-tech, precision farming systems, as well as approaches borrowed from organic farming, we could boost yields in these places several times over. But commercial farming has started to make huge strides, finding innovative ways to better target the application of fertilizers and pesticides by using computerized tractors equipped with advanced sensors and GPS.
Though many of us consume meat, dairy, and eggs from animals raised on feedlots, only a fraction of the calories in feed given to livestock make their way into the meat and milk that we consume. In poor countries food is often lost between the farmer and the market, due to unreliable storage and transportation. Addressing our global food challenges demands that all of us become more thoughtful about the food we put on our plates. Faced with a dwindling pantry, Dreier has decided to try some tough love: If she sends Keagan to school hungry, maybe hea€™ll eat the free breakfast, which will leave more food at home for lunch. She shakes the last seven chicken nuggets onto a battered baking sheet, adds the remnants of a bag of Tater Tots and a couple of hot dogs from the fridge, and slides it all into the oven.
Congressional cuts to SNAP last fall of five billion dollars pared her benefits from $205 to $172 a month.
The suburbs are the home of the American dream, but they are also a place where poverty is on the rise. Cheap clothes and toys can be found at yard sales and thrift shops, making a middle-class appearance affordable. The Jeffersons receive $125 in food stamps each month, and a charity brings in meals for their bedridden matriarch. The neon glow of a Hartz Chicken Buffet appears up the road, and he starts in: Can’t we just get some gizzards, please? When the food finally arrives, filling the car with the smell of hot grease, there’s a collective sense of relief. A stay-at-home mom with a high school education, Reams has taught herself how to can fresh produce and forage for wild ginger and cranberries. She estimates her family could live for three months on the nutritious foods she’s saved up.
Healthful food can be hard to find in so-called food deserts—communities with few or no full-service groceries. But when the garden is done for the year, Christina fights a battle every time she goes to the supermarket or the food bank.
With more than a third of Ethiopians malnourished, the government is courting industrial farms to help close the gap. Since 2007 the near-record prices of corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice have set off a global land rush by corporate investors eager to lease or buy land in countries where acreage is cheap, governments are amenable, and property rights often ignored. Recent discoveries of world-class coal and natural gas deposits in the north as well as other mining and forestry concessions are slowly changing its fortunes. After riots over food prices broke out in Maputo in 2010, President Guebuza fired his agriculture minister and replaced him with Interior Minister José Pacheco, an agronomist, who has continued courting investors at conferences around the world. Only about 40 men got low-paying jobs as watchmen on the farm, while hundreds were displaced. The key to corporate farms winning over local communities, he says, is simple: Keep your word.
These included giant pension funds, life insurance companies, hedge funds, private equity funds, and sovereign-wealth funds, which currently have about 5 percent of their combined assets allocated to investments in agriculture. Both are crucial for the continent to be able to feed its own growing population—much less the rest of the world. Workers herd livestock aboard a ship (right) in Berbera, Somaliland, that is headed to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. They are simply trying to feed their family on two and a half acres of corn, and selling bamboo poles for thatched roofs on the side.
Simply giving women the same access to loans, land, seeds, and fertilizers as men could increase food production by as much as 30 percent. The spread of prosperity across the world, especially in China and India, is driving an increased demand for meat, eggs, and dairy, boosting pressure to grow more corn and soybeans to feed more cattle, pigs, and chickens. Agriculture’s footprint has caused the loss of whole ecosystems around the globe, including the prairies of North America and the Atlantic forest of Brazil, and tropical forests continue to be cleared at alarming rates.
Many growers apply customized blends of fertilizer tailored to their exact soil conditions, which helps minimize the runoff of chemicals into nearby waterways.
For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or 3 of beef.


Consumers in the developed world could reduce waste by taking such simple steps as serving smaller portions, eating leftovers, and encouraging cafeterias, restaurants, and supermarkets to develop waste-reducing measures. For most of our history we have been blinded by the overzealous imperative of more, more, more in agriculture—clearing more land, growing more crops, using more resources. We need to make connections between our food and the farmers who grow it, and between our food and the land, watersheds, and climate that sustain us.
It’s peak harvest time, and he often works until eight at night, applying pesticides on commercial farms for $14 an hour. Consumer electronics can be bought on installment plans, so the hungry rarely lack phones or televisions. A pair of freezers in the garage each contain a single layer of food, enough to fill bellies for just a few days. Small markets or fast-food restaurants may be within walking distance, but not all accept vouchers.
On the drive back to the shelter the boys eat until the gizzards are gone, and then drift off to sleep. When she learned that SNAP benefits could be used to buy vegetable plants, she dug two gardens in her yard. The Reamses have food security, in other words, because Kyera makes procuring food her full-time job, along with caring for her husband, whose disability payments provide their only income.
Jackie Christian didn’t resort to feeding her sons fried gizzards because it was affordable but because it was easy. In 2012 it spent roughly $11 billion to subsidize and insure commodity crops like corn and soy, with Iowa among the states receiving the highest subsidies. Today most subsidies go to a few staple crops, produced mainly by large agricultural companies and cooperatives. Those who managed to get jobs on the giant farm are working seven days a week with no overtime pay. Most land deals have occurred in Africa, one of the few regions on the planet that still have millions of acres of fallow land and plentiful water available for irrigation. National debts are declining, and peaceful elections are being held with increasing frequency. Will it be poor farmers like Chirime working one-acre plots, who make up roughly 70 percent of the continent’s labor force? The rush to tap these hydrocarbons has ignited Mozambique’s economy, which grew by an estimated 7 percent in 2013. Only about 2.2 million acres are currently unutilized, and those are the worst lands for farming.
Though food production by small farmers has improved over the past few years, 37 percent of the population is undernourished, and the country’s southern region is plagued by droughts and floods. In return he sells his soybeans to the company at an agreed-on price, minus the cost of the services provided. Now Mozambique’s farmers are starting to raise soybeans for feed to supply the booming chicken industry.
To help build their nation’s economy, Liberian officials asked the Malaysian company Sime Darby to replant a portion of a nearly 544,000-acre lease with palm and rubber trees, as well as another 109,000 acres that will be managed by small farmers. If these trends continue, the double whammy of population growth and richer diets will require us to roughly double the amount of crops we grow by 2050.
Of all of the options for boosting food availability, tackling waste would be one of the most effective. We need to find a balance between producing more food and sustaining the planet for future generations. As we steer our grocery carts down the aisles of our supermarkets, the choices we make will help decide the future. Here pocketing food from work and skipping meals to make food stretch are so common that such practices barely register as a way of coping with hunger and are simply a way of life. Today hunger in the suburbs is growing faster than in cities, having more than doubled since 2007. Of all the suburbs in the country, northwest Houston is one of the best places to see how people live on what might be called a minimum-wage diet: It has one of the highest percentages of households receiving SNAP assistance where at least one family member holds down a job.
Meme says she took the children aside a few months earlier to tell them they were eating too much and wasting food besides.
She has learned about wild mushrooms so she can safely pick ones that aren’t poisonous and has lobbied the local library to stock field guides to edible wild plants. Given the dramatic increase in cheap fast foods and processed foods, when the hungry have money to eat, they often go for what’s convenient, just as better-off families do. The government spends much less to bolster the production of the fruits and vegetables its own nutrition guidelines say should make up half the food on our plates. When the food stamps come in, she splurges on her monthly supply of produce, including a bag of organic grapes and a bag of apples.
Within a few, dusty minutes the one-acre plot near Xai-Xai, Mozambique, which had fed Flora Chirime and her five children for years, was consumed by a Chinese corporation building a 50,000-acre farm, a green-and-brown checkerboard of fields covering a broad stretch of the Limpopo River Delta.
A spokesman for Wanbao denied such allegations and stressed that it’s training local farmers to grow rice. More than one in three sub-Saharan Africans now own cell phones and use them for mobile banking, to run small businesses, or send money to relatives in rural areas. Or will it be giant corporations like Wanbao, operating industrial farms modeled on those of the American Midwest?
Massive infrastructure projects are springing up, many financed largely by loans from nations eager to curry favor with political leaders and get in on the action. In 2009 Mozambican officials leased the nearly 25,000 acres of an abandoned state farm to a Portuguese company with ties to the government. But when a group of Brazilian farmers toured the region in 2013, they had a rude awakening.
During that time Gouws’s farm helped turn Mozambique from a banana importer into a banana exporter. Such a massive infusion of private cash, technology, and infrastructure is exactly what global agriculture needs, according to FAO experts, who estimate we’ll need to invest $83 billion a year in agriculture in developing countries to feed two billion more people by 2050. The eldest, a shy girl named Esvalta, is pounding corn with a wooden pestle as tall as she is, just as her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother did before her. Trading tropical forest for farmland is one of the most destructive things we do to the environment, and it is rarely done to benefit the 850 million people in the world who are still hungry. Because people in developing countries are unlikely to eat less meat in the near future, given their newfound prosperity, we can first focus on countries that already have meat-rich diets.
Maps, source: Global Landscapes Initiative, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota.
In 1980 there were a few hundred emergency food programs across the country; today there are 50,000. The Jefferson sisters, Meme and Kai, live here in a four-bedroom, two-car-garage, two-bath home with Kai’s boyfriend, Frank, and an extended family that includes their invalid mother, their five sons, a daughter-in-law, and five grandchildren.
After 25 years of virtually no investment in African agriculture, the World Bank and donor countries have stepped up. I meet the 52-year-old farmer at a threshing party just outside the Hoyo Hoyo boundary, where two dozen men from the local Roman Catholic church are beating piles of soybeans with wooden clubs.
As the farm grew, Gouws paved roads, built a school and a clinic, dug wells, and ran 34 miles of electrical lines that not only power his irrigation but also supply the surrounding villages where his employees live.
My guide, who has worked in agricultural development for 20 years, says the children and parents appear to be stunted from malnutrition. Most of the land cleared for agriculture in the tropics does not contribute much to the world’s food security but is instead used to produce cattle, soybeans for livestock, timber, and palm oil. Curtailing the use of food crops for biofuels could also go a long way toward enhancing food availability.
The house has a rickety desktop computer in the living room and a television in most rooms, but only two actual beds; nearly everyone sleeps on mattresses or piles of blankets spread out on the floor. The continent is emerging as a laboratory for testing new approaches to boosting food production.
When the Portuguese managers came in, they met with village leaders and promised them double the amount of land to farm elsewhere as well as a school, a clinic, and new wells.
His lowest paid workers make 10 percent more than minimum wage; his tractor drivers and plantation managers make more than double that. China has already built a new airport, the parliament building, the national soccer stadium, and even the new presidential palace overlooking the broad bay in the capital, Maputo. The seven-acre plot, for the moment still controlled by the church, is next to Hoyo Hoyo’s wide-open fields, which stretch toward the green mountains in the distance. In 2013 President Armando Guebuza spent a week visiting the new Chinese president with a ten-billion-dollar wish list of new construction projects in hand.



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