The second consideration is whether sustainability should be considered a luxury or a necessity. In today’s markets, the question is how much more will consumers pay for sustainable products than for unsustainable ones. Perhaps, given that we are currently consuming resources on a finite planet faster than they can regenerate, unsustainable products should perhaps cost more than sustainable ones.
From our experience dealing with subsidies in agriculture, we know that when producers are subsidized, there is less incentive to be more efficient, and innovation comes only when farmers are forced to survive and even thrive without external support. On a finite planet, the cost of externalities will need to be factored into prices. Given shortages of arable land, water, phosphate and potassium, we will probably see markets begin to address these issues. The question is whether it will be fast enough to avert a food security crisis. Put another way, the question is whether consumers should pay the real costs of production? As arable land, soil fertility, and health and water scarcity are all increasing issues globally, we need to figure out how the relative cost of food can possibly continue to decline. In the United States, we pay the least, at just over 10 percent of household income.
Agriculture is currently the largest threat to the planet of any human activity. It is the leading cause of habitat conversion and deforestation. The key crops on the agriculture frontier are beef, soy and palm oil. Agriculture uses twice as much water as all other human uses combined, and currently it takes about 1 liter of water to produce one calorie of food globally. Some 12–15 major rivers run dry at least part of the year. Agriculture is the largest source of pollution and not just in developing countries where agriculture is the primary economic activity but also in the United States and UK. Agriculture uses more chemicals than any other human activity. And, finally, as a result of agricultural practices over the past 150 years, we have lost an estimated 50 percent of remaining top soil around the world.
Although the impacts of large-scale, commercial agriculture and small-scale less intensive or more subsistence oriented agriculture are different, it is not clear which forms of agriculture have the most impacts. It depends on the issues being compared and the methodologies being used. What is clear moving forward, however, is that regardless of the technologies in use or the scales of production, whatever per capita impacts are acceptable with 7 billion people will not be with 10 billion.
To put it another way, the issue going forward with regard to producing more with less is how to think, not what to think. We need to focus more on the desired results and less on the means to achieve them. Adopting a BMP (better management practice) approach will achieve compliance, but it won’t stimulate innovation. If we want innovation, we should identify the results we want and let producers and others find different ways to achieve them. This will stimulate the development of a range of new BMPs, some of which will produce results that far exceed those we think are now possible.
As the old adage goes, you manage what you measure. So what should we measure? Taking into account the fact that producing anything has impacts, the issue moving forward will be to define which are acceptable and which are not. We also need to shift our thinking from maximizing any one variable to optimizing several of them. For example, total productivity is perhaps less important than production per key inputs (e.g., water, soil, N, P, K, pesticides, etc.). In terms of protein, we might measure grams of protein consumed as feed versus grams of protein coming out as food.