Science & Environment
2:58 pm
Mon July 7, 2014

How Your Everyday Choices Shape the Global Landscape

Corn as far as the eye can see - a result of meat-heavy diets and the push for biofuels.
Corn as far as the eye can see - a result of meat-heavy diets and the push for biofuels.
Credit Kris Kables / Flickr

Jesse Ausubel often sees rays of hope where others see gloom and doom. Industrial agriculture is the most recent example. And you're responsible.

What's the hardest thing about tackling big problems like climate change, population growth, or the world's hungry? For Dr. Jesse Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University, it's not getting pulled into a finger-pointing blame game.

"Everybody wants to blame a right-wing conspiracy, or the Japanese whaling fleet, anybody," says Ausubel.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Modern, industrial agricultural practices enable farmers to produce more using less land and less water. That has led to stagnating growth in farmland globally, and Ausubel says we could begin to see a decline in the amount of land used for agriculture. That could be a boon to natural ecosystems, but whether or not it happens depends on, well, everybody.

The global landscape is shaped by choices that each of us make every day - whether to wear rayon or cotton; whether to power our vehicles with gasoline, biofuel, or electricity; whether to eat meat or tofu, and whether to do that eating at home or in a restaurant. The list goes on, and the repercussions aren't always intuitive. 

Take biofuel as an example. Powering cars with ethanol from corn instead of fossil fuels may seem like a good idea for the environment, but Ausubel argues it backfires. Growing corn uses almost as much energy and resources as it produces, and it would take a vast area of land to grow enough to replace gasoline. Electric cars circumvent that issue, avoiding both petroleum products and agriculture.

Then there's meat. A lot of corn and soybeans end up as food for chickens and cows, not humans. Chicken is "the meat that's winning," says Ausubel, in large part because it is more efficient at converting food into meat. Farm-raised seafood, like tilapia and shellfish, is even more efficient.

Less corn raised to fuel cars and feed cows means more land that can be returned to a natural state - "rewilded," as Ausubel calls it. In fact, Ausubel would like to see a lot of corn for human consumption replaced with something more efficient, like potatoes.

"I'd like to see potatoes front and center [in the grocery store,]" says Ausubel.

That's because they're among the most land-efficient crops. American farmers currently grow forty percent more potatoes on twenty percent less land than they did in the 1970s.

Consumers haven't made nearly as much progress in the efficiency department. According to some estimates, a third of food gets thrown away. And if you think that's mostly restaurants, think again. Ausubel says we aren't much better at home. That means there's a lot of land out there - perhaps ten percent of all land on Earth - that's being needlessly farmed.

While Ausubel relishes the idea of freeing up farmland to give natural ecosystems room to rebuild, that doesn't mean he wants us all to eat nothing but industrially-produced potatoes. Rather, he envisions a two-part farm economy in which staples are produced by highly efficient industrial farms, while other items - the flavors - come from smaller, niche producers. He likens it to the clothing industry, with mass-produced jeans and tees augmented by hand-made scarves and boutique jewelry for personal flair.

Oysters, anyone? Or maybe a home-grown arugula salad?

Related Program