There are 1,001 reasons to love the local/slow/organic food movement. Whether we care about animal rights, our carbon footprint, or the poverty-obesity link, it behooves all of us to take a serious look at our food choices. But before we get too carried away by the promise of small-scale, chemical-free growing, let’s look at some of the cold, hard facts:

  • A billion people go to bed hungry every night, and another billion aren’t too far from that.
  • We’re about to add another 2 billion people to the global population.
  • The planet is warming (fast), meaning more heatwaves and drought, which is bad news for growing food.

Translation: It’s going to take more than backyard chicken coops and window-box gardens to get us through the next few decades.

“People like Michael Pollan are good at making people realize where their food comes from, and the externalities of food production, but anecdotes can be very misleading,” says professor David Lobell, associate director of Stanford’s Center for Food Security and the Environment. “In California, we have great climates and great soils, but in Africa, organic agriculture results in very low productivity, and very persistent poverty.”

Lobell doesn’t deny the environmental impacts of industrial farming, but he does think we’re going to need some of its heavy-duty tools if we’re going to feed 9 billion people without converting what remains of wild nature into farms.

“The question for me is not whether we can produce enough food, but whether we can produce enough food without destroying the environment in the process,” he says. “Thirty to 40 years from now, we’re either going have large chunks of the Amazon growing soy beans and other things … or we’re not. If we can’t meet the basic needs of people, then I don’t think the prospects for the Amazon are good.”

Take a listen as Lobell and I discuss the ramifications of climate change on food production, how food scarcity and price shocks contribute to global political unrest, and what it’s like to receive hate mail at 7 a.m.

This interview is part of the Generation Anthropocene project, in which Stanford students partake in an inter-generational dialogue with scholars about living in an age when humans have become a major force shaping our world.