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.

Borlaug spirit alive

The environmental impacts of meeting demand depend on how global agriculture expands. Clearing land for agriculture and the use of fuel and fertilizers to grow crops increases carbon and nitrogen in the environment and cause species extinctions.

In the paper, Tilman and his collaborators explore different ways of meeting demand for food and their environmental effects. In essence, the options are to increase productivity on existing agricultural land, clear more land, or do a combination of both. They consider various scenarios in which the amount of nitrogen use, land cleared, and resulting greenhouse emissions differ.

“Our analyses show that we can save most of the Earth’s remaining ecosystems by helping the poorer nations of the world feed themselves,” Tilman said.

Lastly, it can’t be overlooked that the spirit of the late Norman Borlaug is alive and well in the humanitarian efforts that are moving forward on many fronts today — from donors such as Warren Buffett and the Gates Foundation that has financed efforts by the International Rice Research Institute to research ways to increase yields in poorer nations, to agricultural chemical and fertilizer companies working closely with government officials in third-world countries to feed their people more cost-effectively and efficiently. Much success has been made on this front, but as the world’s population continues to mushroom, the challenges remain daunting and continuous.

Nonetheless, it should appear obvious that lending a hand to help out the less fortunate nations on the planet indeed contributes to the overall environmental welfare and security of the wealthy nations. And quite frankly, it is the right thing to do.  For this Borlaug – known as the father of the Green Revolution for producing and introducing high-yield wheat varieties into Mexico, Pakistan and India, thereby saving millions from starvation — would be proud of our efforts.

Sprawling weeds

It’s funny what you come across on the Internet while researching fodder for news columns. Here’s a little diddy that I just had to share. Seems the park district in the small town of Highland Park in Illinois has decided to resume the use of chemical pesticides to treat its sports fields. The district changed its policy four years ago to use only organic, health-conscience techniques, including intensified irrigation, aeration, mowing, over-seeding and other cultural practices.

But a few months ago, the district confessed that the dandelions, clover and other invasive weeds had gained the upper hand. The baseball, soccer and football fields have become overrun with 60 percent to 80 percent weeds and are in the worse shape they’ve been in over a decade. So government officials finally threw in the towel and admitted defeat.

“The fields are getting worse every year,” lamented Park District Commissioner Cal Berstein. “I think something needs to be done to reverse the trend.” Well, maybe now the athletes will be able to find many of their lost sports balls. Live and learn.