Can We Double Our Eggplant and Basil Output?


Last week, I went to hear a lecture considering how we can double agricultural output worldwide in the coming decades to keep up with population growth.  Professor Wilhem Gruissem's answer was, in a nutshell, GMOs.

This week, a piece in Nature, "Solutions for a cultivated planet" by Jonathan A. Foley et al., considers the same question with a bit more of a focus on the ecological devastation wrought by industrial agriculture.  A few choice tidbits:

  • "Agriculture is now a dominant force behind many environmental threats, including climate change, biodiversity loss and degradation of land and freshwater."
  • "Agriculture is responsible for 30–35% of global greenhouse gas emissions, largely from tropical deforestation, methane emissions from livestock and rice cultivation, and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilized soils."

The article's authors suggest a few principles for expanding agricultural output without wrecking the planet:

  1. Stop expanding agriculture.  Cutting down tropical forests in particular has only limited benefits in terms of world food yield.  (I've read that the soils there are relatively poor.)  Instead, the paper's authors would like to see us reduce the loss of already productive farmland (fewer subdivisions?) and improve yields on the land we're already using. 
  2. Close yield gaps. In other words, make underperforming land perform better. To do it without environmental devastation, the authors argue that it will take "reforming conventional agriculture and adopting lessons from organic systems and precision agriculture."
  3. Increase agricultural resource efficiency. In other words, improve nutrient and water use so some places are not squandering these resources while others are starving because of a lack them. In water-scarce places, they recommend mulching and reduced tillage, and God bless.
  4. Increase food delivery by shifting diets and reducing waste.  Less meat–in particular, less grain-fed beef. Less waste–the authors cite an FAO study that found that about one-third of the food produced is never eaten, but lost to waste, spoilage, or pests.  

I'd like to add my own thought:

  1. Turn that wasted patch of sunny suburban sod into a vegetable garden.  You'll enjoy it.  It will be pretty.  The food will taste great. You'll take some pressure off the planet.


  1. RE: principle #1 : The agency I work for has worked long & hard to wrangle agreements from its member jurisdictions (six counties in CA’s Central Valley & the cities therein) regarding future land use & the preservation of farmland. We started 10 years ago by mapping each jurisdiction’s General Plan for land use – the composite picture (20-30 years in the future) was scary, primarily for the miles of prime farmland obliterated by industrial & residential development. Showing that scenario to elected officials & the public at large convinced many in the region that something had to be done. So we developed a plan encouraging compact and infill development, limiting the ag & environmentally sensitive acreage lost to new construction in the coming years. Google “SACOG Blueprint” and “SACOG RUCS” if you want to see specifics.

    It’s amazing, though, how many people have the mindset that it’s OK to get our food from other states, other countries, so long as they get their brand-new home w/3-car garage & swimming pool on .10 acres. Me ? I’d love to have more room, mostly to grow more food. But I want even more to be able to look the guy or gal who grows my food in the eye.

  2. I could double my basil output more easily than any other edible…but I’m already at my limit of pesto and basil oil consumption! More basil will not help!

  3. My county in Oregon, which is predominantly ag-based, realized the importance of protecting farm and forest land, and created zoning accordingly, after categorizing all land according to how it could best be used. The “urban centers” (small towns) have been infilling. It’s working pretty well, but there is constant push from developers even so. the ag base is predominantly perennial fruit (orchards, vines and bushes) so the issues with tilling and plowing are not the same, but I will say that there are constant improvements in how things are being done, including water resource management. I also believe we haven’t yet explored enough things like vertical farming, and the use of urban and suburban lands for food cultivation.

    #4 on the list seems like a critical, new piece of the puzzle; consumers really have a lot more power than they realize when it comes to how and what farms grow and sell. Old habits die hard, but if you compare American diets now with what they were like in the 60’s, for example, you can see that it can be done.

    And, when it comes right down to it, there is nothing as good as harvesting your own produce from your own plots or pots!

  4. Your neighbors agree. You have set a great example from your own garden to the project in our local elementary school. Indeed it is plant-grow-cook and eat.

  5. Here in The Netherlands you see more and more people growing their own vegetables. Most gardeners have their garden as a hobby, but I notice some economic reasons too. Vegetables in the supermarket are extremely expensive at the moment.

  6. Back in the day, there were all kinds of studies showing that the best way to increase productivity per acre is to increase the ‘eyes per acre’ ratio. Or to use another cliche, ‘the best fertilizer is the farmer’s (or gardener’s) footsteps.

  7. A lot of land can be made available for growing food if only wasting it to grow corn for ethanol wasn’t done. The World Health Organization estimates 200,000 of the poorest people in the world will or have died because of the rising cost of food.

    Corn is used for human consumption, for animal feed, corn syrup and hundreds of other food ingredients. It takes over one acre of of corn production to power each car on the road with the current 10% ethanol in each gallon of gas. This is a huge waste and considering planting, fertilizing, production and transportation ethanol uses more energy and pollutes more than using gasoline.

    Growing one’s own produce is fine, but there is no more logical, cost efficient way to increase food production and lower food costs than to stop burning food in our gas tanks.

    The lecturer and author’s expectations of doubling production with the techniques mentioned are simply fanciful. Stopping ethanol which is recognized by environmentalists as increasing pollution and eliminating the supports for farmers, producers which is simply welfare must be done. Politicians should grow some backbone and stop this. This is a practical and cost efficient way to accomplish far more than is possible even if all the methods mentioned were practical, and they are not.

  8. I remember hearing – a number of years ago – that a large percentage of the food grown in Russian came from small residential gardens which sent surplus to market. If the Russians can do it . . .

  9. You can grow a surprising amount of your own food on a wasted patch of suburban (or urban) sod. We grow the majority of our vegetables for half of the year on a 20’x 20′ plot in our city yard. And we eat a lot of vegetables. We have to buy meat and grains, but growing veggies adds a tasty and nutritious and seasonal element to the meal, as well as saving money.

    Americans were encouraged to grow their own food in response to the food emergency of WWII. If the time we’re living in now doesn’t qualify as a food emergency, I don’t know what would be. Dig up your lawn!

  10. Sorry to be stupid, but what are GMOs?
    Also, while the idea of only local foods is appealing, what do people in temperate zones eat in winter? I’d hate to go back to the days of only canned foods for 6 months of the year.

  11. GMOs are genetically modified organisms. In this case GM crops like corn or rice. They have been the greatest agriculture development in the last 20 years.

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