This data scientist has a plan for how to feed the world sustainably : Short Wave According to the United Nations, about ten percent of the world is undernourished. It's a daunting statistic — unless your name is Hannah Ritchie. She's the data scientist behind the new book Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet. It's a seriously big thought experiment: How do we feed everyone on Earth sustainably? And because it's just as much an economically pressing question as it is a scientific one, Darian Woods of The Indicator from Planet Money joins us. With Hannah's help, Darian unpacks how to meet the needs of billions of people without destroying the planet.

Questions or ideas for a future show? Email us at shortwave@npr.org.

This data scientist has a plan for how to feed the world sustainably

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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KWONG: ...From NPR.

REGINA BARBER, HOST:

Hey SHORT WAVErs, Regina Barber here with special guest Darian Woods of NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator From Planet Money. Hey, Dare.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: Hello, Gina. Thanks for the nickname.

BARBER: You're welcome. You're welcome. So we brought you on the show because recently you've been reporting on a question that's intriguing and actually very pressing on both scientific and on an economic level - how can we feed the entire world population - 8 billion going on 10 billion people - sustainably?

WOODS: Yeah. I mean, you could argue it's one of the most important economic issues in the world - hunger. We've grown up with images of famine on our TV screens. And we also hear statistics, like about how 10% of the world is undernourished.

BARBER: And it starts to seem even more alarming, like, when you think about how climate change affects crops. In some places, it can lengthen the growing season of crops, but in others, it can also make farming and agriculture more difficult. Crops need more water to offset rising temperatures, more intense wildfires can risk farm and rangelands and heavy rains can erode soils and the nutrients they contain.

WOODS: Yeah. That's quite a list. And that's not even mentioning the increased health risks to farm workers.

BARBER: Yeah.

WOODS: And so you have agriculture which is both a casualty of and a major cause of climate change. But there is some good news.

BARBER: Good. 'Cause I think we really need some hope.

WOODS: Yeah. So what I've learned through this reporting is that farming has gotten a lot more productive over the last century. In fact, we might have reached peak farmland as less land is needed.

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WOODS: Global land use for agriculture has actually been going down since 2000.

BARBER: Wow. That's actually surprising.

WOODS: Yeah. It's good for reduced deforestation. And this somewhat surprising fact comes from Hannah Ritchie, who is the lead researcher at the online publication Our World In Data. She recently published the book "Not The End Of The World: How We Can Be The First Generation To Build A Sustainable Planet."

BARBER: I actually really like that title.

WOODS: Yeah. It's a great title.

BARBER: So today on the show - how to feed the world.

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BARBER: Together with Hannah Ritchie, Darian busts myths about global food production and learns what can really help people and the planet. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the science podcast from NPR.

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WOODS: At the website Our World In Data, Hannah Ritchie works daily with numbers, covering the big trends shaping the planet. And for her new book, she drew on her background as an environmental scientist to write a data-driven investigation into how to meet the needs of people without destroying the environment. And so today, we ask Hannah, how could we feed the world sustainably? And to set the scene, I asked her about the long-term stats on hunger.

HANNAH RITCHIE: We see long-term declines in undernourishment, which is basically just not getting enough calories to eat. The trends there is that undernourishment has fallen significantly over time, but we still have around one in 10 people who just don't get enough food to eat. I think a concerning trend there is that we did have this long-term decline, but in the last few years, we've actually started to see an uptick again, where in some regions, hunger is starting to go up.

WOODS: And in terms of food production, how are we doing at the moment?

RITCHIE: Yeah. So I think when people think about food production today, I think people would assume that we just about produce enough food to feed everyone, and some people just don't get enough. But actually, what you find when you look at the data is that we produce much, much more food than that. Some of the numbers on this you could approximate that could be equivalent to around 5,000 calories per person per day.

WOODS: Five thousand calories is about double what the average person needs.

RITCHIE: Now, that's the stuff that we grow. So if you just took the crops out the ground that we grow, that's the amount you would get. Now, the difference there is that's not the amount that's, like, available on our plates. There are massive losses and inefficiencies in our food system. One is just purely, like, food losses and waste. But another couple are we use crops for biofuels and industrial uses. And then a big one is that we feed crops to animals. Now, we get a nutritious meat out in return, but you often lose a lot of the calories that you put in and you don't get that return in meat.

WOODS: Hannah says that the average beef cattle gives you just 3% of the calories that was used to feed it.

RITCHIE: So we produce more than enough food to feed eight, nine, 10 billion people, ultimately more than 10 billion. But it would require massive changes in how we use that food. It would require massive dietary changes. We would need to rethink how we do biofuels. But this is not a problem of the world can't grow on our food.

WOODS: Hannah explains that people not eating enough is caused by two major forces. First, there's an allocation problem with crops and land going to biofuels and livestock rather than to hungry people's mouths. And secondly, she says, there are also local blockages, and that might be caused by wars or natural disasters or pandemic disruptions in a region. But overall, the data show a hopeful message. In terms of feeding the world sustainably, it's already possible to feed the world with the food we grow now. But what about the second part of that phrase? Is the feeding being done sustainably?

RITCHIE: Yeah. I think our food system really lies at the heart of many of our environmental challenges. Even if you take climate change. So food systems produce around a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. But the other big pressures there is that we use around half of the world's habitable land for farming. Seventy percent of the world's freshwater withdrawals are for farming. It's the leading driver of deforestation. It's the leading driver of biodiversity loss. So when you think about farming and food systems, that is ultimately the biggest pressure on a lot of our environments across the world.

WOODS: All right. So not encouraging stuff. And so before I asked Hannah about potential solutions, I asked her about common misconceptions. What are some common actions that people do to try to eat in a more environmentally conscious way that she would not recommend? Like, what about buying locally, eating from farms and gardens that are close to where people live?

RITCHIE: People, when you ask them what's the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of their diet, they'll often say, eat local. When you break it down and look at the data, that's often not what the data says. When we look at emissions from food systems, transport, globally, is only around 5% of emissions from food. So the food miles are actually quite a small part of the carbon footprint of many foods. Based on the - only on carbon footprint, it's not clear that eating local is necessarily a better choice.

WOODS: Buying organic, also not high on Hannah's priorities in terms of reducing agricultural pressure on the planet.

RITCHIE: Now, organic farming does have some benefits. It's - possibly has some benefits for local biodiversity. But I think there's also some downsides to organic farming. Like, typically, the average organic farm would get slightly lower yields than conventional farming. Now, what that means is that you'd need more land to produce that food. And if you're doing that in particular regions that are vulnerable to land use change or deforestation, that could actually have an opposite impact, a negative impact. So again, it's - the data is not clear that organic is automatically better for the environment, although many people assume that it is.

WOODS: So buying local, eating organic, not a huge amount of enthusiasm from Hannah. So I asked her what her recommendations would be for feeding the world sustainably.

RITCHIE: I think there are some supply side solutions and some demand side. So I think on the supply side, one of the really positive developments we've seen over the last 50 years or so and has actually driven, you know, the fact that we can grow so much food has been a massive increase in crop yields. So crop yields across the world have, you know, doubled, tripled, in some cases quadrupled. And what that means is you can grow much more food on much less land. Now, from an environmental perspective, that's really important.

WOODS: The reason why crop yields increased so much is basically down to two things - synthetic fertilizer and better crop varieties. Smarter application of both those things could improve yields further. So that's the supply side.

RITCHIE: And I think on the demand side, there, I think just a big thing when it comes to these environmental challenges is meat production. Meat production tends to require the most land, require the most water, release the most greenhouse gases, drive the most deforestation. And then on the demand side, I think what's just going to be really key - and I acknowledges is much more difficult - is dietary change. Significantly reducing global meat consumption would have a big impact on these environmental problems. I think if we were to massively reduce the environmental pressures from farming, then starting to reduce global meat consumption will be a big part of that.

WOODS: It's a tough sell to say to the world, become vegetarian. So how do you think about this issue?

RITCHIE: I mean, it's not in my position to tell anyone what to eat...

WOODS: Right.

RITCHIE: ...And I think people don't respond to that very well. I don't think it's that we necessarily have to go completely vegetarian or completely vegan. I think for many people, that's really unrealistic. But I think there are steps we can take, especially in richer countries where we consume a lot of meat. This is not a, you know, no one in the world can eat any meat. And especially in low-income countries, that's a really important part of nutrition. But in high-income countries in particular, we eat a lot of meat. And even just cutting back, whether it's, you know, going meat free for a day or switching out meat in a particular meal can start to make a big difference. So I think this is not necessarily an all or nothing, but it's how can we take steps that start to alleviate some of this environmental pressure?

WOODS: So can we feed the world sustainably?

RITCHIE: Yes we can. We might not. We - they - I mean, it's not inevitable that we do, but I think we have the capacity to do so. And I hope my book can have inspired some people to take some actions.

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BARBER: That was Hannah Ritchie talking to NPR's Darian Woods. Darian is one of the hosts of The Indicator, NPR's daily economics podcast, where they cover work, business, the economy and so much more with new episodes every weekday. For more, check out the link in our episode notes. I'm Regina Barber. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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