Can We Feed the World Through Sustainability?

Alan L. Johnson

In a new report on sustainability authored by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) entitled: "It's Time to Plant the Seeds of Sustainable Growth in Agriculture," Alex Meyer zum Felde and the BCG Sustainability Team offer some advice and clarity on the question of whether we can feed the world through sustainable agriculture. The report offers:

The world is inhabited by eight billion people. In the next 30 years, there will be two billion more people who will need to be fed. Today, already 30% of all land globally is considered degraded with 28% of crop land in water-stressed regions, malnutrition is endemic, and climate change is accelerating. There is a growing and urgent need for fertile farmland.

The article goes on to stress that farmers, regulators, consumers, and food companies are questioning the status quo and beginning to think about what a more sustainable agricultural industry could look like despite efforts to create more food from less resources which has been in motion for years. While the team admits that there are clear challenges presented by global warming and the lack of land, they see a hopeful worldview where there is immense opportunity for agribusinesses to embrace sustainable farming and to make it an essential element of their core business. In a recent survey, consumers overwhelmingly mentioned that they are ready for sustainable food sources:

A BCG survey of 9,000 consumers in nine countries revealed that 86% of respondents want “good food for the world and me.” And 70 percent of sales growth in 2011 and 2014 in the US retail sector came from responsible-consumption products.

Some agricultural companies, including crop nutrition providers, seed companies, farming equipment makers, and crop protection manufacturers are adopting more responsible practices in disparate areas of their operations.

Many agricultural companies have also introduced new or improved products, such as crop protection agents, which are more sustainable. The persistent efforts of other stakeholders could soon compel the lagging agricultural companies to adopt sustainability – or be left behind.

To BCS, the goal of the new sustainability in agriculture claim is four-fold:

  1. Increase output
  2. Cultivate exceptional crops using methods that support high-quality food production and distribute the crops through transparent supply chains
  3. Provide an acceptable livelihood to farmers and workers
  4. Embrace environmentally-sound practices that prevent and conserve resources

What is interesting to see is the rate at which companies and communities are looking to change and move to more sustainable farming practices. It looks like sustainability is already beginning to feed the world.

While agricultural companies have started to actively join this transformation, other stakeholders such as regulators, consumers, food companies, and farmers are the ones driving the sense of urgency. Regulators are setting change in motion primarily by linking farm subsidies to sustainable agriculture practices.

In the end, BCS believes there is a way for sustainable businesses to feed the world:

The opportunity for agribusiness companies is huge. They can play a larger role in sustainable farming, become knowledge partners with their customers, drive innovation and technological solutions, improve crop yield, and enhance the quality for food for people—while protecting the environment.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. How do you determine if a food is sourced sustainably?

Q2. Name the top three locations from where the food in your fridge is sourced.

Q3. How have food shortages or recalls affected your family?