Can we produce more food with less farming? A new book has ideas.
For a journalist on the food-and-planet beat (me) to write about a book by another journalist on the food-and-planet beat (Monbiot) is, to some extent, an exercise in worldview-matching. Obviously, his book is good to the exact extent he agrees with me! Which, in this case, is maybe 70 percent. But reasonable people can disagree about the remaining 30 percent, and that’s not why I want to tackle the book.
I want to tackle it because Monbiot writes extensively and persuasively about what is arguably the most important and underappreciated aspect of food’s effect on climate: land use. “The climate costs of farming mirror its land costs,” he writes, and our central challenge is “to produce more food with less farming.”
Greenhouse gases from food are somewhere between a quarter and a third of our annual total (Monbiot cites the higher estimate), and a quarter of that comes from land-use changes. Historically, Monbiot points out, citing the work of soil scientist Rattan Lal, the conversion of land in the industrial age has been responsible for 190 billion tons of carbon being released into the atmosphere, compared to 490 billion tons for fossil fuels
Our biggest opportunity to reduce food-related greenhouse gases is to find ways to feed a growing population without expanding food’s land footprint and, ideally, to free up some land to return to its pre-agricultural, carbon-storing state.