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Magazine Articles

The Future of Food

Spring 2018

Photography by Robert Clark

As human populations grow, so will the demand for food and water. But today's methods of producing food already overtax the environment—and expanding such activities will spell disaster for both people and nature. Science shows us there is another way. Around the world, The Nature Conservancy is working with farmers and fishers to put new ways of producing food to the test, searching for practical solutions that meet the needs of people while doing minimal harm to nature.

I live in Denver, and like many people I try to do everything I can to reduce my footprint on the planet: bicycling, recycling, watching my water use, turning off the lights when I leave.

Yet I know that whenever I plug my laptop into the wall, half of that electricity comes from coal-fired power plants that drive climate change. More than half of the water that gushes from my tap started on the other side of the Rocky Mountains in the Colorado River, and took energy to pump underneath the Continental Divide. Every shower I take is part of the reason the Colorado River doesn’t flow into the ocean anymore. Depending on what I choose for dinner, I might be contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon, or depleting fish stocks on the other side of the world.

Together, the choices we make in our daily lives have a profound impact on the world. While the scale of the problems can be overwhelming to think about, it also works in the other direction: When we take small, positive steps together, we can make a huge difference.

Take something as essential as food and water. In 1951, when The Nature Conservancy was established, there were just under 2.6 billion people on the Earth. Thanks to your support, we now work in more than 70 countries and all 50 states, where we have helped protect hundreds of millions of acres of land, water and ocean.

Despite our gains, the challenges have not diminished. Realistic estimates put the population at 10 billion by 2050. And all of those additional people will need clean drinking water and nutritious food. To keep pace, the global food supply will have to increase by at least 50 percent.

How can we meet these needs without sacrificing nature or economic growth?

At TNC, our scientists have run models warning us that protecting natural places alone isn’t enough. We’ve got to do more, as the threats to nature will intensify unless we fundamentally change the way food, water and energy are provided to make them more sustainable. The good news is that science tells us this is possible. We can support people and protect nature—but we’ve got to be smart about how we do it.

And that’s where there is even more good news, because a growing number of people are already making food choices that help the environment. Many people are supporting organic and local agriculture, for example, or are choosing plant-based diets that have a smaller ecological footprint.


A growing number of people are already making food choices that help the environment. Many people are supporting organic and local agriculture, for example, or are choosing plant-based diets that have a smaller ecological footprint.


Today TNC and a vast network of groups are working together to minimize the impact of agriculture on nature. The Conservancy is partnering with farmers, ranchers, governments, corporations and others to pilot hundreds of innovative projects, some of which have already begun to dramatically reduce food’s impact on nature.

For example, we’ve worked with landowners in northeastern Brazil to protect the forests on their lands while maintaining their ability to make a living—and even improve their properties. Since 2004, rates of deforestation in Brazil have decreased dramatically to 75 percent below historical rates. That’s a big success in the face of ongoing pressure to clear huge swaths of the Amazon for expanding cattle ranches and soybean farms. Part of this change is the result of TNC’s work with local landowners, helping them meet Brazil’s legal requirements to keep between 50 and 80 percent of the forest on their lands intact and healthy.

To expand the scope of this work beyond Brazil, we are working with private companies like Cargill to make sure that the soy they supply comes from deforestation-free sources.


The Conservancy is partnering with farmers, ranchers, governments, corporations and others to pilot hundreds of innovative projects, some of which have already begun to dramatically reduce food's impact on nature.


Protecting fisheries is one of our most pressing conservation challenges. Over 60 percent of the world’s fisheries are in decline or overfished. In most of these fisheries, we don’t have good data on how many fish are being caught. But new high-tech tools are starting to change that.

In Indonesia, TNC is working with tech companies to create an inexpensive way to detect species and track catch numbers accurately at processing plants or even on ships. The goal is a mobile app that basically works like a facial recognition analyzer for fish. Called—you guessed it—FishFace, it won the 2016 Google Impact Challenge: Australia.

Some 40 percent of tuna stocks are overfished. In the Western and Central Pacific, where the problem is most acute, we’re working with fleets to install electronic-monitoring systems on fishing vessels in Palau, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia. Data from sensors, cameras and geolocators will help determine which fishing techniques will maintain an economically viable tuna haul with the minimum amount of bycatch.


We offer a glimpse of that alternative path forward: a future where farmers safeguard the water supply, where agribusiness invests in healthy soils and where fishers ensure tomorrow’s catch will be there.


Another powerful example of how we are working to reshape agriculture is in the calculus of water use. Agriculture—not cities or industry—is by far the biggest driver of water use, accounting for 70 percent of what we take from rivers and groundwater. TNC has helped pioneer new strategies for working with farmers to protect urban water supplies through our water fund program.

The idea is to create a mechanism through which downstream water users help pay upstream landowners to protect water supplies by employing good conservation practices—using water-efficient irrigation methods, restoring forests, keeping cattle out of streams, and so on. The arrangement protects water supplies at their source, is cheaper than paying for filtration and treatment, is better for the environment, and makes agriculture more sustainable. So far TNC has facilitated 30 water funds around the world, and another 30 are already in the works.

The Conservancy recently helped set up the Nairobi Water Fund in Kenya—together with partners including Coca-Cola and a local brewer—to help restore the city’s main supply of drinking water, the Tana River. Small hillside farms above the city have caused erosion and silt to choke the river and its reservoirs. Since 2015 more than 18,000 farmers have signed on to the water fund, which equips and trains farmers to use terraces and stream buffers that reduce erosion, and the river water is substantially cleaner.

“We can both support people and protect nature, but we’ve got to be smart about how we do it.” --Brian McPeek, Chief Conservation Officer at The Nature Conservancy



Water funds can also help resolve conflicts over limited water supplies. In southeastern Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin is the country’s agricultural breadbasket. But farming’s water demands often leave little left over for natural wetlands, which evolved to depend on seasonal flooding.

One solution has been a TNC water fund launched in 2015 that buys and sells water rights. The program sells water to farmers in dry times, when they need it and the price is high, and then supplies wetlands in wetter times, when it can do the most good. The program has already secured more than 2 billion gallons of water. The Conservancy is adapting this market approach to help conserve water sources in Asia, Africa and the Americas (see nature.org/water).

Irrigation is also a huge concern in the U.S., where agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water consumption. For the past three years we have helped farmers in western Nebraska reduce their irrigation water use by about 20 percent, saving enough water to fill more than 1,800 Olympic swimming pools. Farmers saved money by decreasing energy bills for pumping water and increased their crop yields through more-targeted irrigation.

Make no mistake, the challenges are significant. But the transformations we are working toward will be critical to the future of conservation. With your support, we continue to bring innovative strategies to bear on the threats facing nature. And these strategies rely on TNC’s greatest strengths—our expertise in science, our partnerships with a wide range of people and groups, our respected reputation with governments and global corporations and our worldwide on-the-ground presence.

It’s important not to lose sight of the small changes each of us can make every day. I know I’ll continue to bike to work, shop for sustainable groceries and try to keep my showers short. But it’s also good to know that TNC is busy scaling up our strategies and projects from Nebraska to Micronesia. It’s only by combining these efforts at both ends of the scale that we can create a world in which 10 billion people have food, water and energy, and still protect the natural world and make it better in the process.