Photo by Paul Kirchner.

The Need to Diversify Food Systems

“How to feed the planet” is an increasingly urgent concern for people the world over, brought into relief against a backdrop of mounting social and environmental challenges. Current population and consumption trends are increasing the pressure on Earth’s finite natural resources.

Tractor spraying crops
Tractor spraying crops. Photo from Creative Commons.

At the same time, climate change, and declining access to oil, water, land, and nutrients, will interact in unpredictable ways, potentially undermining agriculture as we know it.

Ironically, existing agriculture – large-scale, industrial, and monoculture – is already undermining itself, and much else besides, by eroding soils, polluting waterways, creating oceanic dead zones, destroying biodiverse habitats, and contributing to global warming.

Local food market in Kenya
Photo by Annie Chang

It is often stated that the global demand for food will double by 2050, fueling concerns about how we will “feed the world”. This calculation assumes that current trends in population, consumption (i.e the demand for meat and luxury products), and food waste will continue unabated into the future.

However, it is also now better understood that hunger and malnutrition are problems of access, distribution, power, and poverty. These problems cannot be solved by focusing solely on expanding food production, but must instead focus on the root causes of poverty and hunger. Thus, these challenges require greater insight into the large-scale patterns and processes of food production, distribution, and consumption (“food systems”), and the political and economic contexts in which these activities occur. In turn, these challenges require the search for viable alternatives – how can food systems that are ecologically and socially diverse contribute to overcome hunger and poverty?

The Center for DFS, as a hub of research at UC Berkeley, includes research efforts up and down the food chain, and involves students and faculty across the range of natural and social sciences, from ecology, energy studies, chemistry, and genetics to geography, anthropology, history, political ecology, economics, sociology, and more. The Center for DFSenables new interdisciplinary collaborations, and aims to inspire creative new thinking about the challenges of making food systems equitable and sustainable. By understanding how diversified farming systems work, and how to achieve them, our long-term goal is at once ambitious and eminently overdue: to help create a resilient, socially just, and secure global food system.

Diversified Farming Systems (DFS) may offer a way out of this paradox. With their focus on local production, agro-ecological and local knowledge, and whole systems approaches to farming, DFS could reduce both the environmental and social costs associated with industrialized agriculture.


Limited Resources: Land, water, and energy are at or near capacity for supporting the agricultural systems on which the world’s food supply depends.

Climate Change: As rainfall patterns and temperatures shift worldwide due to climate change, industrial agriculture will face additional challenges: unpredictable weather means unpredictable harvests.

Population Growth: The world’s population is expected to grow by more than two billion people over the next 30 years, to nine billion.

Consumption: 36% of the world’s crops now feed livestock rather than people, but only about 10% of those calories end up in the human diet. Emerging economies are consuming more meats and processed foods each year. Thirty to forty percent of crops produced are wasted due to post-harvest or post-consumer losses.

If population, consumption and food waste trends continue unabated, demand for global food production could potentially grow by 70-100% by 2050. However, reducing population growth, eating lower on the food chain, and minimizing food waste could reduce the need to grow our food supply.

Modern agricultural methods:

  • Rely on increasingly scarce resources, including fresh water and fossil fuels.
  • Deplete soils much faster than they can be restored through natural processes.
  • Need increasing amounts of fertilizer to sustain current yields.
  • Release a wide array of toxic chemicals into the environment in an effort to control crop pests and diseases.
  • Clear and convert habitat into greatly simplified fields to attain higher yields and efficiencies.
  • Encourage the atrophy of farmer knowledge of ecological and soil conditions on farms.
  • Depend on a smaller and smaller set of seeds, crops, and livestock for mass production, weakening the resilience of farm systems in the face of environmental change.
  • Rely on a single species, the honeybee, to pollinate the majority of crop species, but the honey bee is suffering massive colony losses around the world.


Students working on Olambo Farm in Kenya. Photo by Annie Chang
Students working on Olambo Farm in Kenya. Photo by Annie Chang

We need to identify and create sustainable agricultural solutions for present and future generations.

Through diversified farming methods, we can create an agroecosystem that supports natural ecological processes and thus provides critical ecosystem services to agriculture: soil formation,  nitrogen fixation, efficient nutrient cycling and water use, pollination and pest control. Diversified farming methods are more likely to promote adaptation to changing climate than industrial methods.

The majority of people living in extreme poverty with chronic hunger are small farmers in rural and, increasingly, peri-urban areas. Diversified farming can support smallholder agriculture, and provide secure supplies of food for the most needy. Diversified agriculture can help people to feed themselves, and thus help to “feed the world” in far more sustainable and just ways.