9 Billion Reasons Why We Need Sustainable Agriculture

By: Nicole Hines, UMASS Master in Public Health Nutrition Student and IFIC Foundation Intern     Date: 7/31/2013

One of the perks of being an intern with the International Food Information Council is that I get to attend a variety of meetings and presentations that happen around the D.C. area and report back key takeaways to the team. In addition to getting to see the inside of cool government buildings, I've been able to really broaden my horizons by being immersed in several diverse subject areas. I recently attended the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research's (N-CFAR) Lunch and Learn on Capitol Hill and wanted to blog about it because I found it quite informative - especially since this is not a subject to which I have received a lot of exposure to.

Dr. Marty Matlock presented on "The Role of Sustainable Agriculture Initiatives in Global Competitiveness." He hails from the University of Arkansas and is also the Program Director Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability. To clarify and put the topic in perspective, sustainability refers to how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. There are three key "pillars"- environmental, economic and social - that must be preserved and/or enhanced to constitute a sustainable system. For more information visit USDA's sustainable agriculture webpage.

Global urbanization infographicDr. Matlock started his presentation by addressing the social aspect--that is, the population issue. He stated that by 2050 the world population is going to hit 9 billion. Human prosperity allows us to expand across current constraints; women are a good example of this, as they have been increasingly empowered over the years and have proven to provide valuable societal benefits. Additionally, he stressed that the next 10 years will determine the Earth and humanity for the next 100 years, and cultures either change and adapt or go extinct. "Good science and good data help people prosper," he said.

So what are the challenges for agriculture as population and demand continue to increase?


There will need to be increased production to meet demand.

If demand is not met, the U.S. and EU will need to increase production even more.

We need metrics to standardize comparison levels and measures by which to determine if various approaches are "sustainable" or not.

Metrics need to be outcome-based, science-driven, and technology-neutral.

We need sector-level and national-level life-cycle assessments

We have a complex food supply chain that needs to be focused on three key factors: safety, security and stability.

Dr. Matlock stressed that the top three environmental performance indicators for agriculture are greenhouse gases, energy use, and water use. In the next 10 years, through technology and other modern farming techniques, we will see improvements in water-efficiency, increased wheat production by 50 percent globally, and lifted sustainability barriers such as access to labor and trade barriers.

With my nutrition background, I found Dr. Matlock's remarks regarding the bottom billion, those who are hungry and malnourished, to be the most interesting. He stated that their caloric needs could actually be met with today's food production. The calories end up getting lost due to food waste, but the problem is that they can't afford to buy the food. Moreover, he stated that it's not all about calories - quality and nutrition matter. I've always had a strong passion for the food insecurity issue and have been volunteering with Feed My Starving Children for a number of years to try and do whatever I can (even if small) to help resolve this issue.

In his conclusion, Dr. Matlock reinforced the need for farmer-driven metrics, increased global demand and production, and how the producers need to be part of the solution. "All members of the food supply chain will need to work together to be successful." Last but of course not least, he reminded us that U.S. agriculture producers are the most sustainable across every category of indicators. It's pretty apparent that we've come a long way when it comes to agriculture sustainability, but we also have a long way to go. Responsible sustainable agricultural practices will help us feed even 9 billion people - and that's pretty amazing!

For more information on sustainable agriculture visit:

Sustainability Series Part 1: What is Sustainability

Sustainability Series Part 2: Health & Nutrition

Sustainability Series Part 3: Communication Tips

Expert Perspectives on Food Production