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To Feed the World, We Should Rejigger Our Crops

November 13, 2017

The farmers of the world haven't globally optimized what they grow where. But if they did, it could have a profound impact on our ability to feed the planet.

Growing populations, water scarcity, and climate change are all making it harder to grow enough food, and the situation is only going to get more difficult in the future. As we’ve argued before, GM foods will play a big role in helping ease the problem by creating tougher, higher-yielding plants that survive hostile conditions and provide more calories per acre.

But a new Nature Geoscience study has a more basic suggestion for us to chew on: namely, that we switch up where we grow things. The study argues that "the current distribution of crops around the world neither attains maximum production nor minimum water use," and then imagines what the future might look like if crop planting were optimized to provide the most calories while using least water.

The answer? Pretty filling: our planet could feed 825 million more people than it does now, using 13 percent less water. That, clearly, would go an awfully long way to ensuring that hunger isn't one of the largest problems facing the world.

But even if—and that's a very big if—the world did choose to implement such a scheme, there's a cultural problem to overcome. As Ars Technica points out, the move might not sit very well with ... well, practically anyone right now, to be honest. Optimizing crops to feed as many people as possible mean doing things like favoring maize over rice in India, or soybeans instead of sugar beet in Russia. In others words: diets would have to change dramatically to accommodate the "improvement."

But hey, for the greater good, maybe it's time we all mixed up our menu.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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