What are the implications of a changing climate on agriculture and our ability to feed a growing population?  To what extent do current agricultural practices contribute to climate change and what can be done to mitigate these without reducing yield? 

To delve into these and other questions we turned to Tim Searchinger, a Research Scholar at Princeton University, serving both the Woodrow Wilson School and Princeton Environmental Institute.  Mr. Searchinger is also a consultant to the World Bank on climate smart agriculture and Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. Searchinger’s work combines economics with ecology to address these issues. Most recently, he was Technical Director for World Resources Report: Creating A Sustainable Food Future.  Mr. Searchinger trained as a lawyer and spent 17 years at the Environmental Defense Fund, leading that organization’s work on agricultural and wetland policy. He has been a fellow of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, Senior Fellow of the Law and Environmental Policy Institute of Georgetown University Law Center and a special advisor to the Maryland state government on the Chesapeake Bay.

Searchinger described the global agricultural landscape; it  comprises 75% of the world’s vegetated lands and aims to provide nourishment for the people and animals living in the world as cheaply and efficiently as possible. These practices, however, contribute significantly to climate change. By its release of nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon into the atmosphere, agriculture is responsible for one quarter, or 14 gigatons, of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is currently 50 gigatons and expected to increase to 85 gigatons by 2050 if we change nothing. Half of agricultural emissions come from production, the other half from cutting down forests to expand croplands. In order to prevent the levels of these gases in the atmosphere from surpassing the amount it can safely absorb, however, agricultural emissions need to decrease  70% by  2050. We arrive at the crucial challenge that the world faces when it comes to food: with population growth, increasingly richer diets and expanding global development, we must also produce 70% more food by 2050.

Searchinger examined a three-pronged approach to agricultural innovation using the categories of production, consumption, and research and development. He set forth a detailed picture of what we are up against and the imbalances we seek to correct. For instance, half of the emissions released in agricultural production come from raising ruminants such as cows, yet beef provides only 3% of our calories. Roughly one quarter of the food produced globally goes to waste, and in the U.S. we waste a remarkable 40% of our food. Finally, greenhouse gas emissions produced by the average American diet are roughly equal to the amount that comes from the average American’s energy use. To regain balance in our food systems, we can make changes in how we consume food and the efficiency with which we produce it. Many of these changes will hinge on how we pursue and enforce advances in technology.

Improving grazing systems is one way to increase efficiency in the livestock industry, which plays a key role in feeding the world and changing emissions rates. To do this we can learn from the many successful models situated in local environments around the world. We need to farm “smarter,” he said, and contain increased yield to existing croplands in order to protect forests. Solving our food dilemma also requires critically understanding and reducing waste, increasing education to decrease fertility rates, and reducing meat consumption. In terms of technology, Searchinger asserted that the knowledge and techniques we need are available, and yet we fall short in execution. “There’s nobody whose job it is,” he said, “to produce food with lower greenhouse gas emissions.” Create and fill these jobs, and the work of feeding the world while reducing emissions will get done. In summary Searchinger laid out the task at hand: to treat this challenge more seriously, reduce demand, cultivate new technologies, incentivize and ensure emissions reduction through jobs and regulation, and remain attentive to the complex processes that accompany growing food worldwide.

We so grateful to Tim Searchinger for sharing his expertise on this important issue, and thank Terhune Orchards as well for generously hosting this Conversation.