The Coming Grumbles of 9 Billion Tummy Rumbles

“How do you slaughter a goat in Humla? Apparently, you strangle it. It was decidedly unceremonious — actually pretty quiet and painless. I think I was expecting, or had at least envisioned, more of a spectacle: the chanting of some Tibetan incantation, the piercing and fearful cries of the goat, and finally the spraying of pints of blood. Maybe part of me (I’m ashamed to admit) wanted to see some brutality — to shatter my sanitized view of the food chain, and to shock myself with the harshness of eating meat.” – Jeremy Berke, How to Eat in Other Places

In Berke’s How to Eat in Other Places, he details a trip to Humla, Nepal, where he watches the slaughtering and butchering of a goat. The traditional act involves “killing in order to sustain” and nourish people, free of the baggage of ideals we celebrate here in America, those like “farm-to-table, nose-to-tail dining — buzzwords in the contemporary foodie scene of many developed cities.” Ideas that on one hand demonstrate our desire to know our food’s origin story but on the other keep us at arm’s length from actual experience. Without that experience, how do we connect what we eat with how we get our food?

That connection is clear in the dehesa, an area in western Spain with centuries-old practices in sustainable farming for both plants and animals, including the growth of the trees that produce 80% of the world’s cork and the pigs that get fat from those trees’ acorns and are slaughtered to make jamón ibérico, a type of cured ham. This Spanish Pig-Slaughtering Tradition is Rooted in Sustainability because, says chef Dan Barber, the “age-old practices carry with them a very complicated ecological understanding, and an intimate engagement with the environment.” But does it take the immediacy of slaughter for us to become thoroughly familiar with how we get our food?

The dehesa and its “multifunctional agro-sylvo-pastoral system” are explored in-depth in Dan Barber’s Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food as an example of how farmland can simultaneously support a variety of crops and animals. What grows best and in concert should then make it onto the menus at our restaurants, and into our grocery stores. Barber’s restaurant Blue Hill institutes these practices now in New York. The Spanish farmers of the dehesa have proved for centuries that it can work for small, rural communities. What is currently debated, is how we’ll adapt our food chain to the future demands of a population racing toward nine billion.

When you’re faced with feeding that many people, how do you scale up sustainability? In Fishing for Billions: How a small group of visionaries are trying to feed China and save the world’s oceans (paywall) Erik Vance describes a process happening that could be called the aquatic version of the dehesa. Fishermen, scientists and businesspeople are working to revamp thousands of freshwater farms in China by introducing multiple species of fish and molluscs into the same environment (it helps that they can recycle each other’s waste). Since 70% of the fish consumed in China comes from these farms, it’s important to find a workable solution soon. An intimate awareness of the balance required by these systems is critical, because coming technologies will allow us to scale our efforts at never-before-seen rates.

Though there is something noble-sounding about living like the farmers of the dehesa, it remains to be seen if that can provide for the demands of our population. What if farmers embraced emerging technologies, like the use of drones to help maintain and gain greater data about their crops? As we see in 5 actual uses for drones in precision agriculture today, there are ways to mitigate our use of pesticides by using drones to help target crops more effectively.

The founders behind BioCarbon Engineering want to take drone-aided farming to another level by using drones to plant a billion trees a year. Their logic? “We believe that industrial scale deforestation, can only be countered with industrial scale reforestation,” says biomedical engineer and team member Susan Graham. Given the 26 billion trees a year we currently cut down, it’s a start.

To address the seemingly impossible problems of the near future, the strategies outlined in Peter Diamandis’ Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World can provide a framework for thinking on an exponential scale. Diamandis concedes that humans aren’t natural exponential thinkers, but citing cross-industrial successes like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, Diamandis argues we must learn to adjust our thinking if we want to create change and impact the world.

To incentivize these kinds of world-changing endeavors, Diamandis founded XPRIZE, an organization “whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefits of humanity.” Perhaps the most famous example, the Ansari X Prize was won in 2004 by SpaceshipOne. The categories for other prizes include energy & environment, exploration, global development, learning and life scienes. Two of them in particular, No-Soil Agriculture and Urban Farming, encourage entrepreneurs to focus their thinking on the big scale problems of food.

But as much as tech competitions can dangle carrots of funding and fame to motivate entrepreneurs, the way to feed the coming billions may be as simple as taking it one person at a time. Timothy Wise, in an interview about The Best Way to Feed Billions, strays from blaming large-scale agriculture and commodity crops (we do use more corn for fuel than food at this point), and instead focuses on making good land available to local farmers to grow their own food, as there are many added benefits. “Small-scale farming is labor intensive,” Wise says, “so it could create more jobs in those countries as well as more food.”

That focus on – and involvement in – the creation of food helps us gain a responsibility for our own futures. Knowing that disruptive innovations and big companies will play a huge role in securing the future for billions can’t be our only plan – we need to be active in maintaining a connection to the food chain – whether it’s by the simple act of growing our own food, understanding how our food choices affect others, or empowering those who grow food around the world.

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