I did something totally different for summer vacation this year. I attended a week's worth of lectures on "Feeding a hungry planet" at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit founded in 1874 in southwestern New York as an experiment in vacation learning.
If you're wondering what food has to do with nature, the answer is simple: Agriculture has the single largest footprint of any industry on earth.
Forty percent of all the land on the planet has been cleared and 38 percent is for food production. Put another way, we've cleared an area the size of South America to grow crops and the size of Africa to raise livestock. Agriculture consumes 70 to 90 percent of the water worldwide and nearly all arable land is in production.
Already stressed ecosystems will be further stressed by 2050 when we add another 2 billion people, or two Chinas, to the planet.
Speaker Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota, asked, "How do we get out of this without doing too much damage? We're running out of planet."
There has been more change in the last 50 years than in all human history: Our population has doubled while food and water use has tripled. Fossil fuel consumption has increased by a factor of four.
Up to 30 percent of greenhouse gases come from agriculture through transportation, deforestation, methane gas from cattle and rice fields, and the creation of nitrous oxide from too much fertilizer.
If we continue to reproduce to 9 billion-plus people, we will need two times more food by 2050. As people in China, India and elsewhere become wealthier, they want to eat more meat.
Foley suggests a five-pointplan to reverse agriculture's destruction.
First, we must stop deforestation, particularly in Brazil and Indonesia. We are trading rainforests for hamburgers and palm oil. Second, we must grow more food on less land. Mexico, Africa and Eastern Europe are places where there is the most potential to make small farms more productive. More than half of all food is grown on seven acres or less and half of that is grown by women.
Third, we must grow food more efficiently with drip irrigation and less fertilizer.
Fourth, we must change our diets to eat less meat, especially beef, and stop using food, like corn, for biofuels. It takes seven to eight pounds of food for a cow to produce one pound of meat, whereas one pound of food for a salmon produces one pound of meat.
Finally, we must reduce waste. Up to 50 percent of food is never eaten.
We only have 36 years to radically transform the way we grow and consume food. Otherwise, we will continue to wipe out ecosystems to feed ourselves with increasingly unhealthy diets.
• Shannon Brennan, a former staff writer for The News & Advance, monitors a section of the Appalachian Trail and the James River as a volunteer She works at Lynchburg College. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. "For Love of Nature" will appear on the first and third Wednesdays of each month in the Lifestyle section.