• Paul Conway of Cargill, Inc.

    Photo: Justin Knight

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  • John Reilly, codirector of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

    Photo: Justin Knight

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  • MIT Vice President Claude Canizares, the Bruno Rossi Professor of Physics, spoke at the event.

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  • (From left): Professor Thomas Hertel, Stewart Lindsay, and Ben Jordan

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Feeding the world without consuming the planet

MIT researchers and industry experts address global resource challenges and ways to confront them.


Global population is expected to rise from about 7 billion today to close to 11 billion by the end of the century. This growing population will increase the demand for food, putting further strain on global land and water resources already feeling the pressures of climate change. Responding to the urgency of these challenges, the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change brought together experts from academia and industry at a food symposium on November 5, “Feeding the World without Consuming the Planet.”

MIT Vice President Claude Canizares joined Joint Program on Global Change Co-Director Ron Prinn in opening the event. He highlighted MIT’s dedication to expanding research on agriculture, as urged by President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in a report published last December. He also emphasized the Institute’s long history of forming industry collaborations to confront the world’s greatest challenges.

“MIT’s 150-year history of being devoted to the industrial arts makes us very comfortable to work closely and in real partnership with industry. I can’t think of a more important problem for us to tackle,” said Canizares at the event, which included experts from Cargill, Coca-Cola Co., Mosaic Company, Weyerhaeuser Company, and Bunge Limited.

Cargill Vice Chairman Paul Conway also gave opening remarks outlining the challenges of increased food consumption, accelerating urbanization, demands for biofuels, and variability in climate.

“We see climate change as a critical risk. We have to prepare ourselves to make sure we adapt,” said Conway, who also encouraged additional research in science and technology. “To ignore some tools that are available to us that have had a significant impact — particularly in terms of the reduction of chemicals — would be foolish.”

Agricultural resources and inputs

Joint Program Co-Director John Reilly kicked off the first session of the event with an overview of MIT’s work on modeling water stress, resource demands, variability in temperature, and precipitation patterns, and the economic impacts of climate change on food prices.

“We need to better understand local and regional climate changes and extremes to improve agriculture,” said Reilly, of which the Joint Program is already studying with their Integrated Global System Model (IGSM) — a tool that connects earth and human systems to better predict future climate changes.

Industry is also doing its part to maximize yields and adapt to climate change. Reilly’s session focused on two key industries in particular: forestry and fertilizers.

As fertilizer companies meet growing productivity demands, they must focus on improving resource inefficiencies and misallocations of fertilizer in the developing world, said Michael Rahm of the Mosaic Company. Meanwhile, timberlands management could help mitigate climate change, according to Robert Ewing of the Weyerhaeuser Company. Weyerhaeuser is also working with Chevron to research how timber scraps could be used in biofuel production.

Agricultural commodity markets, food, and consumers

The second session of the event progressed up the food production chain and looked at the impacts on prices and trade. Describing the challenge of growing food prices, Professor Thomas Hertel from Purdue University said that there are many factors to watch including biofuel expansion, oil prices, technical capabilities, drops in research and development, and climate change. Hertel also explained income rises in the developing world will encourage diets to change and require more land intensive agriculture. Improved efficiency in trade and technology will be essential in meeting the demands of growing affluent societies.

Stewart Lindsey of Bunge Limited agreed with the importance of trade. “It plays a very important role in the world,” he said. “It really is a mechanism that gives deficit countries — countries that don’t have enough food to ensure security — the ability to do that in a pinch.”

Only 15 percent of global grains and oilseeds are exported today. By expanding global trade of agriculture, Lindsey suggested we should urge countries to be more efficient by growing and exporting foods based on their locally available resources and climate conditions.

As the food and agriculture industry continues to prepare for climate change and increased food demands by supporting agricultural trading, optimized yields, and sustainable agricultural practices, Reilly emphasized the important role of academia in such efforts.

“We look forward to continuing this conversation with collaborators in industry,” he said, “in order to improve our understanding of all these challenges, and find the best ways to adapt to our changing climate and resource demands.”


Topics: Agriculture, Climate, Climate change, Food, Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, Special events and guest speakers, Water

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