Jun 07, 2011 • By

Help for a hungry planet

With a global population expected to reach nine billion by 2045, how will the food industry double or triple global food production while conserving the natural resource base our business depends on?

That’s the challenge being taken up by the Global Landscapes Initiative (GLI), a project spearheaded by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) with help from General Mills and other international companies and organizations in the business of food production, conservation and agriculture.

The initiative will investigate how human land use activities – specifically, the growing of food to feed the world’s human population – impacts the planet’s ecosystems, watersheds and climate pattern GLI will use historical land use data and global models to measure current patterns of carbon uptake and release from ecosystems, along with options for trapping and holding carbon emissions through mechanical means and bioengineering efforts like forestry.

Key to the initiative is a software tool that allows the GLI team to combine the satellite maps with information from almanacs, census bureaus and agriculture departments to show which crops have been grown where, how much fertilizer and irrigation they used, what the climate was like, what yields resulted, their carbon footprint and more.

It’s an enormous undertaking, but one that IonE and its GLI partners are tackling head-on.

“Our ultimate goal is to have a solid understanding of the environmental footprint of all consumer products which will help us make smarter, even more responsible sourcing decisions,” says Steve Peterson, director of Sourcing Sustainability at General Mills and GLI team member. “We believe GLI can play a key role in developing the tools that will help General Mills and others identify those stories,” says Peterson.

In addition to coming up with a long-term plan to help feed the world while helping the ecosystem, there are short- term benefits. For example, GLI is helping General Mills identify how much irrigation water is required for the crops it buys from around North America.

It’s also working to help the company identify excess nutrients that may impact water quality.

The project reinforces General Mill’s strong commitment to reducing its environmental footprint through efforts that range from using biomass and renewable energy in its plants to pioneering water-saving agricultural practices.

“The expertise of companies like General Mills can help us make our research and findings more relevant,” says Jonathan Foley, director of the Global Landscapes Initiative. “It can help us understand emerging issues, improve our data sets and make our research more relevant to consumers and everyday people.”

As Steve told us, “This isn’t something we can start focusing on in 2030 or 2020. We need to start today.”

For a dramatic look at the issue, check out IonE’s Global Landscape Initiative video.