WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Agriculture is often at odds with wildlife organizations over water conservation, land use and other issues. But there’s a chance they could unite over the war on hunger.

If more food could be raised on land that’s already in production, it means less new land would have to be developed to feed a burgeoning world population. That would help preserve wildlife habitats.

“In the next 40 years, we have to produce as much food as we have in the last 8,000 (years),” Jason Clay, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund, told those attending a Future of Food Summit in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. The world’s population is expected to grow from 7 billion today to more than 9 billion in 2050.

There are different ways to produce more food, but one approach Clay’s group would like to avoid, if possible, is building more farms. 

“Agriculture and ranching and food production, more generally, cause more environmental damage than any other human activity,” Clay says. “So, that’s more habitat conversion, more biodiversity loss, more soil erosion, more chemical use, more water use, more greenhouse gas production, et cetera.”

Here are some things his group would rather see than more farms:

  • Produce twice as much food on the same amount of land that farmers are currently using. 
  • Be more conscious about food waste. In developed and developing counties alike, about one third of all food calories are wasted, he says. In the developing counties, it is often due to insect pests, rodents, post-harvest losses, and sub-optimal transportation and storage. In the developed counties, a lot of it is due simply to people throwing food away. And, that means one-third of the resources that went into developing the food ― water, for instance ― is being wasted, as well. He cited an old saying in Denmark that people shouldn’t eat so much at a meal that they couldn’t eat another hamburger. If people followed that adage, they would feel better, have a lot more energy and “we wouldn’t have to produce as much food,” he said.

If people can get it right, hopefully it will mean not having to farm the whole planet in order to keep up with a growing population,  he said.

Thursday's conference included a number of stakeholders in the food system. It was sponsored by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It was held at the Washington Post building.