The eighteenth-century Malthusian prediction of population growth outstripping food production has not yet come to bear. Unprecedented agricultural land expansions since 1700, and technological innovations that began in the 1930s, have enabled more calorie production per capita than was ever available before in history. This remarkable success, however, has come at a great cost. Agriculture is a major cause of global environmental degradation. Malnutrition persists among large sections of the population, and a new epidemic of obesity is on the rise. We review both the successes and failures of the global food system, addressing ongoing debates on pathways to environmental health and food security. To deal with these challenges, a new coordinated research program blending modern breeding with agro-ecological methods is needed. We call on plant biologists to lead this effort and help steer humanity toward a safe operating space for agriculture.


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