We Can Both Feed the World and Protect the Planet

Between now and 2050, the world faces two critical challenges. First we must feed a hungry planet, amid growing demand from a rising population. And secondly, we must do this while protecting our environment.
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Between now and 2050, the world faces two critical challenges. First we must feed a hungry planet, amid growing demand from a rising population. And secondly, we must do this while protecting our environment. Meeting both challenges will require robust economic growth powered by rising levels of agriculture productivity and leadership by locals to encourage investment and opportunity for their people.

To understand both the challenges and the opportunities, consider agriculture in the world's tropical regions. The tropics in Africa, Asia and Latin America contain some of the poorest but most rapidly advancing economies on earth; they also contain some of the most rapidly growing populations.

The citizens in these regions are demanding greater output from their agriculture sector to increase crop yields and to keep the environmental footprint of their farms and plantations to a minimum. There is good news to report in this regard. A combination of expanded trade, new technology and infrastructure modernization is sparking an economic and humanitarian revolution in the tropics.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the palm oil sector. Palm oil is a popular food staple in developing countries where it is used as both a cooking oil and a food additive. It is also increasingly found in wealthy western markets -- driven in part from findings that palm oil is rich in vitamins and nutrients. The success of this sector is helping drive economic growth in Asia and Africa and helping bring food security and improve health in once vulnerable regions.

The key to palm oil's success lies in productivity -- producing more with less. Palm oil today has the highest yield of any vegetable oil sold on the market. This is important because as the world's population increases and as people demand more calories and more nutrients, we must find ways to produce more food without significantly enlarging agriculture's footprint.

The productivity boom in the palm oil sector makes it possible to produce more calories while protecting the environment. For example, Malaysia -- one of the biggest producers of palm oil in the world -- has been able to put over half its land mass off limits to development. This extraordinary achievement would not be possible without the productivity gains in recent decades due to technology and trade.

Unfortunately there are some representatives from civil society and government who see the challenges of feeding the hungry and protecting the planet and believe it's not possible to do both. Instead, they emphasize environmental protection even if it means people must go hungry.

For example, there are some environmental organizations who are currently opposing a promising palm oil project in Cameroon that is backed by American investors. Why? Because they believe it will harm Cameroon's natural endowments.

Those closest to the situation, the people of Cameroon, believe it will help provide food and jobs and enable them to maintain their environment. Consider a comment noted by Chief Norbert Mbille of Batanga in Ndian: "The fear of these environmental NGOs is that without forest they will have no project to execute in our country, and that will mean an end to their mission here. We have given our blessing to the palm oil project because we want development that will eradicate poverty in our community."

A Cameroonian physician, Constantine Chienku, who practices medicine in the United States, makes the point more poignantly when he noted that:

"WWF, Greenpeace and other environment protection NGOs are blocking access to healthcare and education in one of the poorest countries in the world. It is an interesting phenomenon that every time a big development project is announced in Cameroon or anywhere in Africa, a large phalanx of environmental movements rears its collective head and starts protesting about the dangers such a project would pose to the environment. Their primary concerns are in the following descending order: the forests, the animals, and at the tail end, the local populations."

Cameroonians realize the stakes are high for them, with implications beyond agriculture. They aspire to better living standards and a better future for their children. These same aspirations can be seen throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, where governments in cooperation with the private sector are initiating a new wave of investment to increase agriculture production and reduce poverty through high-yield cultivation like palm oil.

The key point for policymakers is that agriculture modernization is not a zero-sum game. We can produce more food for more people while at the same time protecting the environment. Indeed, Europe and the United States enjoy food security and healthy environments precisely because we utilize technology and markets to meet our needs. The same is true for the developing world and we must do more to help enable these countries do better for itself by encouraging economic development and sustainability.