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Feeding the World Within Planetary Boundaries

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BY NATHAN MUELLER

Question for the day: How can you feed 9 billion people while staying within the Earth's planetary boundaries?

A few representatives from IonE and scientists from across the globe are at the Stockholm Resilience Centre this week attempting to answer this very question. Human civilization has flourished during the stable environment of the Holocene epoch, in which modern agriculture developed. Now, perhaps more than any other sector of human enterprise, agriculture is pushing up against the boundaries of a Holocene-like "safe operating space" for humanity. But, of course, nothing is more critical for human survival than agriculture.

Planetary boundaries - our "safe operating space" - are defined by the inner green circle in this figure. Agriculture has heavily influenced the three boundaries that have already been exceeded.

So how do we get to an agricultural system for 9 billion people that is within planetary boundaries? What levers do we have in the system? First, we could attempt to address the issue by affecting demand - meat consumption, biofuels, and food waste all have a big impact on how much cropland is needed to support each person on the globe. Second, we could attempt to boost production through responsible intensification of the world's cropland. Intelligent nutrient use and precision agriculture, rainwater management, and efficient irrigation systems may all have a role to play.

What do you think? What's the best way to feed the world within planetary boundaries?


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  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

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