Research models tackle the frontline fight on global hunger

By Kevin Stark

Paul West is planning the ultimate harvest. He is trying to feed billions more people on Earth with the same land we farm today.

Between 35 and 40 percent of all the land on the planet yields food to feed Earth’s roughly 7 billion people.  But global populations are on the rise and international leaders see the need to double  food production by the year 2050.

And given estimates that 1 billion people currently suffer from chronic hunger worldwide, where is the new land to grow rice, corn, soybeans and other staple crops capable of feeding the new billions?

“If that wasn’t a challenge enough, we have to figure out how to do this in a changing climate,” said West, co-director and lead scientist at the Global Landscapes Initiative and the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. .

Yet West’s answer is simple. Make the same bread-basket areas farmers use today far more productive, he said at the conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C.

West is trying to identify where food can be grown more productively and in a way that is more sustainable for the environment. That means he is researching how to keep excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus on the land and not running off into rivers and streams where the nutrients pollute instead of nourishing more crops.

Tomatoes ripening on the vine at this farm in Marcala, Honduras. (Kevin Stark/Medill)

West uses complicated computer models—fed by meta-data produced by researchers, governments, agencies, and crowd sourcing tools—to identify where food is being grown around the world.

His argument is this: global leaders should focus on growing more food in already established agricultural zones because that will maximize impact. The infrastructure already exists and maybe only the production needs to be improved. He is identifying areas where there are large gaps in production compared to areas with similar climate and soil and far better yields. West is asking how we can improve sustainability and food production at the same time, levering those goals with global data about where food is being grown to what effect in the process.

All the data flows into computer models that analyze how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution, water use, and food waste. The model also helps identify areas of countries where selective fertilizer application can improve the ability to grow plants with the least impact on the environment.

“From a science standpoint, this might not be as interesting on a large scale, but what we have found is that many people are using the averages from our models because they are not available anywhere else.” West said.

Ousmane Badiane is Africa’s director of the International Food Policy Research Institute. He is working to translate some of West’s statistics into concrete policy in Africa, he said as a speaker on the same AAAS panel.

“Unless you open the door for all practitioners to have access to the same information you will not have a level playing field,” Badiane said. “We are trying to have an inclusive dialogue which includes a demand for clear information.”

Photo at top: Many small farms dot the landscape of Southern Honduras, a region that produces coffee, bananas and citrus fruit. (Kevin Stark/Medill)