At this particular time of the year our thoughts naturally turn to giving and good will, of gathering with family and friends over good food and drink, of generally reflecting on the passing year — what we did right, what we did wrong, and with all things considered, how lucky we are to live in a free society in which food is plentiful and comparatively inexpensive. In short, it is a good time to count our blessings.

Such was my frame of mind when I was scanning the Internet recently and came across an interesting story published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article contained a projection that showed global food demand doubling by 2050. The piece was written by David Tilman, Regents Professor of Ecology in the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences, and colleagues, including Jason Hill, assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

In essence, the article drove home the importance of rich and developed nations helping those nations less fortunate to grow the food supplies necessary in the ensuring years to prevent wide-scale starvation.

Tilman pointed out that producing the amount of food needed to meet demand could significantly increase levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen in the environment and cause extinction of numerous species. But this can be avoided, the paper noted, if the high-yielding technologies of rich nations are adapted to work in poor nations, and if all nations use nitrogen fertilizers more efficiently.

“Agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions could double by 2050 if current trends in global food production continue,” Tilman said. “Global agriculture already accounts for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.” Much of these emissions come from land clearing, which also threatens species with extinction.

The article shows that if poor nations continue current practices, they will clear a land area larger than the United States (2.5 billion acres) by 2050. I found this figure alarming. But if richer nations help poorer nations improve yields to achievable levels, that number could be reduced to a half a billion acres. Now that’s encouraging.

The article goes on to say that adopting nitrogen-efficient “intensive” farming can meet future global food demand with much lower environmental impacts than the “extensive” farming practiced by many poor nations, that clears land to produce more food. The potential benefits are great. In 2005, crop yields for the wealthiest nations were more than 300 percent higher than yields for the poorest nations.

“Strategically intensifying crop production in developing and least-developed nations would reduce the overall environmental harm caused by food production, as well as provide a more equitable food supply across the globe,” said Hill.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently projected a 70 percent increase in food demand. According to Tilman, either projection shows that the world faces major environmental probems unless agricultural practices in poorer nations change.