updated 11/22/2011 6:48:28 AM ET 2011-11-22T11:48:28

Americans take time to appreciate and devour abundant food on Thanksgiving. But for nearly one billion people, November 24 will be a day of hunger just like every other day.

Thanksgiving 2050 doesn't have to be like that for the estimated 9 billion people who will be sharing the same global plate by then. Or will it?

Like the dismal ghost of Christmas future showing Scrooge what awaits if he doesn't change, a study led by David Tilman of the University of Minnesota presented two possible food futures for the planet in 2050, depending on how well people use cropland.

Tilman's team used computer models to forecast how different combinations of improved techniques and technologies could reduce environmental impacts compared to what will happen if nothing changes. The research was published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sticking with the status quo until 2050 could mean approximately:

  • 1 billion hectares (2.5 billion acres) of land cleared for crops
  • 3 gigatonnes (3.3 billion tons) of greenhouse gas emissions per year
  • 250 megatonnes (276 million tons) of nitrogen fertilizer used per year

Improving productivity could drop those numbers to approximately:

  • .2 billion hectares (.5 billion acres) of land cleared
  • 1 gigatonnes (1.1 billion tons) of greenhouse gas emissions per year
  • 225 megatonnes (248 million tons) of nitrogen fertilizer used per year

Improving farm productivity also lifts people out of poverty.

"All of the 50 some poorest countries could have 100 to 400 percent higher yields," Tilman told Discovery News, "The same countries have problems with malnutrition."

Teaching poor farmers more efficient techniques, such as the best time to fertilize corn, will save money and raise more food, but a subsistence farmer is trapped by lack of capital and education, said Tilman.

"The only way to feed their families is to clear more land. They have no means to a higher yield on less land," said Tilman.

"There has to be some way to kick start the process. But you can't just hand him a bag of fertilizer. You have to help support the family so hunger doesn't drive them to eat next year's seed," said Tilman.

That's where micro-financing and international donations come in.

"The good news is that they [monetary aids] need not be very large, but the return is huge," Tilman said. "By far it is the least expensive way to provide food aid."

"Agriculture produces more than 33 to 35 percent of greenhouse gases. People think of cars as the problem, but they are only 20 percent," said Tilman.

BLOG: Less Greenhouse Gas From Farming

"Reducing land clearing is such a major way to decrease greenhouse gases... Now in some European countries, they have programs that pay people to not cut rainforests, but people still need food. So, they cut the forest," Tilman said.

Improving yield makes more sense to Tilman.

"It's a wiser approach to address the problem than just paying not to cut... Anything else is self-delusional," he said.

Agroforestry, or growing trees alongside crops, helps solve the economic and ecological problems Tilman put forth.

Josh Bogart works for Trees for the Future, an organization that promotes agroforestry. He took Discovery News on a tour of a coffee farm in central Honduras. Trees for the Future promotes the farm as a model for other coffee farms.

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"In this area you've got coffee. This group of trees is mostly Guatemalan walnut," said Bogart pointing above the coffee bushes, "The walnuts are a major food source for squirrels and parrots. They also used by agoutis [a small rodent], which are threatened here in Honduras."

Bogart pointed out other trees, and explained their value to wildlife, such as quetzals, toucans, iguanas, and sloths.

"So, you've got this shade over this coffee that produces wildlife food," said Bogart.

The trees guard the farmer's soil by reducing erosion and improve the value of the coffee crop, since shade-grown, organic coffee fetches a higher price.

The trees serve as an investment, too.

"They can plan into the future. They can say in 20 years when my kids are ready to go to college, I can cut so many trees. I can send my kids to college," explained Bogart.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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