Balancing sustainable agriculture with the need to feed the world

Sustainable Bites: Food and Our Future What can we do to help make our food systems more sustainable? UBC researchers share small steps that can make a big collective impact. 

About a quarter of our climate change problem stems from agriculture, says Dr. Navin Ramankutty, Director of UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. Yet a growing global population with increasing per-capita consumption means we need to produce more food. Dr. Ramankutty researches environmentally friendly ways to do both.

Did you know?

  • Agriculture uses about 70 per cent of the planet’s fresh water.
  • Agriculture is the biggest polluter of fresh water on earth.

Why do we need to provide farmers with incentives to change to more sustainable agricultural methods? 

Farming is a business, and farmers have invested a lot in their infrastructure and technology. Although shifting from conventional large-scale farming to smaller farms, or organic farming methods, has many environmental benefits, farmers need incentives to do so.  

“Our research shows that organic has many environmental benefits, but it has two big trade-offs,” Dr. Ramankutty says. “It’s less productive than conventional agriculture. And it’s also more expensive for consumers.” 

“A key challenge in transitioning from conventional to sustainable agriculture is the economics of it,” he explains. “So it’s really important for societies and government to implement policies to incentivize farmers to shift their practices.” 

What can we do to promote more sustainable food production? 

“Just be aware that the food we eat actually has an impact on the environment,” he says. It’s not just about production however; what we consume and reducing our food waste matters.  

Voting, he says, is “the single most important thing a consumer can do. Having people in power who reflect your values and priorities can make a big difference.” 

Headshot of Dr. Navin Ramankutty, director of UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability
Shifting our diets toward eating more plant-based foods can help to feed a growing population, says Dr. Navin Ramankutty, Director of UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. Photo: UBC

How do plant-based diets factor in? 

Reducing the global consumption of meat can help the environment. “We need to shift our diets toward eating more plant-based foods,” he says. “Eating meat is actually a major environmental threat.” 

But Dr. Ramankutty notes that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. In developed countries, for example, “we do want to talk about reducing meat consumption by maybe half: that can have a huge environmental benefit.” 

However, in developing countries, many people don’t consume enough protein. “For them, increasing meat consumption is possibly okay,” he says. He notes that in developing countries, raising livestock can be “hugely important to farmers and their livelihoods,” and many countries use grazing practices that are not harmful to the environment. 

“We have to look at a portfolio of solutions that work differently in different places,” he says.  

This article was published on March 8, 2023. Feel free to share the video and republish the text of this article, but please follow our guidelines for attribution and seek any necessary permissions before doing so. Please note that images are not included in this blanket licence.

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