As a conservation organization, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) works to ensure a planet where nature and humans thrive together, by addressing the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth. One of those threats is agricultural expansion.

Agriculture occupies one-third of the planet’s land mass; uses 70 percent of the fresh water and 30 percent of global energy; is responsible for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions; and feeds 100 percent of us. 

With the world’s population estimated to reach 9.4 billion by 2050, will we be able to meet our demands for food, feed, and fuel, and, at the same time, save areas for nature?

We are already beginning to see the consequences of a stressed global food system. In the U.S., states such as California are considering painful trade-offs as they do not have enough water to serve both the urban population and the agricultural sector. In 2012, the Mississippi River was closed to commercial traffic because there was not enough water for boats. Rising food prices due to climate activities have resulted in social unrest in many parts of the world. With our current system exhibiting signs of stress, an increasing population and the uncertain impacts of climate change will only exacerbate the challenges facing our global food system. WWF’s 2014 Living Planet Report notes that society’s consumption of natural resources is 150 percent of the Earth’s capacity to regenerate these resources. 

In other words, we need 1.5 planets to sustain our current consumption of natural resources.

The factors influencing the global food system, from food waste to public policy, are varied and complex. WWF is meeting the global food challenge by working with our partners around the world, including The Coca-Cola Company, and employing a range of interventions. In Northern China, for example, WWF, Coca-Cola and the local government have partnered to work with smallholder corn producers to preserve the Amur Heilong Wetlands, a critical habitat for the Siberian Crane, and improve the agricultural yield of their corn.

Global food companies have a significant role to play in defining and promoting sustainable production for major agricultural commodities like palm oil, sugarcane, soy, cotton, beef and biofuels. 

The Coca-Cola Company has joined WWF in Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture to sustainably source crops such as corn, soy, and wheat. By collaborating on field programs and expanding the use of tools that measure water, fertilizer, and energy usage and greenhouse emissions, this project will impact up to 1 million acres by 2020. 

While there are an array of possible solutions, we have learned that expanding the agricultural frontier is not the answer. Converting natural ecosystems carries a heavy cost. As ecosystems are destroyed or degraded, we lose many of those ecological services we rely on, from clean water and healthy soils to pollination and pest control.

Over the last few decades, vast areas of natural habitat, wetlands, and grasslands in the US have been converted to grow row crops, especially in the Northern Great Plains (NGP). The NGP one of only four remaining temperate grasslands in the world, and is now threatened by habitat fragmentation, resource extraction, and plow-up for crop agriculture. WWF is mapping where this conversion is occurring, the overlapping supply chain infrastructure, and what a “rewards framework” could look like for the conservation of these important areas. The NGP is a priority ecosystem for WWF and is in many respects the frontier of remaining arable land.

Dave McLaughlin

There is no silver bullet and many different interventions will be needed to meet this challenge. But by working together to conserve nature, we can feed the world sustainably. 

Dave McLaughlin is vice president of agriculture at World Wildlife Fund (WWF).