Many people are becoming increasingly concerned about the ability of farmers to feed our ever-increasing population, and with good reason. Consider the following set of circumstances:
- Human population is increasing rapidly. It is expected to reach 9 billion by 2040.
- As prosperity rises, more and more people are moving higher up the food chain, putting dramatically higher stress on resources.
- With the growing population, more and more farm land is likely to be converted to housing or for the production of biofuels or other types of energy farms.
- Fossil fuel, the key driver of 20th century agricultural productivity is becoming increasingly scarce.
- As the effects of global warming, such as the disruption of the water cycle, are felt, farming output is likely to suffer.
- Maintaining healthy forests is crucial to mitigating the effects of global warming, so converting forests to farmland is not a viable option.
However, Jonathan Foley, Director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, and author of a recent article in Nature entitled, Solutions for a Cultivated Planet, and another in Scientific American called Can We Feed the World And Sustain the Planet believes that we can feed the world’s growing population, without destroying the planet in the process, as long as we make some significant adjustments to both our agricultural practices and consumption patterns. Among these are:
- Stop farming in tropical rainforests, especially to grow animal feed
- Improve crop yields in regions where productivity is as low as 20%;
- Change farming practices to better manage water, nutrients, and chemicals;
- Shift diets away from meat (only 60% of food grown today is for humans); and
- Stop wasting food (up to one-third of all food grown is wasted).
You can watch Foley in the enclosed video of him speaking at TEDx in the Twin Cities.
Foley was recently interviewed in Grist where he said, “We found that there is no silver bullet — we need to incorporate the best of what we know now into solving the world’s food problems and protecting our natural resources.”
For example, with regard to eating less meat, he said,
Thirty-five percent of our agricultural lands go to producing animal feed, and cattle and dairy farming take up 3.38 billion hectares. Grain-fed beef is a huge drain on the planet — it takes 30 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of boneless beef. It’s just not efficient. We’re better off producing grass-fed beef or more chicken and pork, which requires far less grain feed. And we’re clearing rainforests to produce this meat! It’s not necessary.
As to the question of farming in the rainforest, he said, “We found that agriculture in tropical areas yields limited food calories — most of it is going to crops like sugarcane, palm oil, and soybeans for animal feed or biofuel. Ceasing agricultural expansion into the tropics would have an impact on global food crops, but it would be small and we could offset those losses elsewhere. It’s about the trade-offs. We lose rainforests, with huge impacts to climate change, but we don’t feed many people. Instead, we’re better off improving production in places where we currently farm than clearing more rainforests.”
He did not feel that organic farming was the answer per se, though he did say that, “our current farming practices use a lot of water and chemicals. We need to ask, how can we improve that? Our research found that nearly half the fertilizer applied runs off rather than nourishes crops — and some places, like China and the central United States, could substantially reduce fertilizer use with little to no impact on food production.”
Foley is not an agronomist, but rather an ecologist and a climatologist, so he was looking at agriculture, which, as he says, “is the biggest thing we do to the planet,” as an outsider.
So his perspective will be different from a farmer like Wes Jackson, of the Land Institute, who raises many of the same issues (along with his robust herbaceous perennial polycultures), but then zeroes in on what he considers the most critical elements: topsoil loss and genetic diversity. Jackson points out that topsoil loss has led to the demise of several early civilizations and that we squander our remaining allocation, through unsustainable farming practices, at our own peril. He also says that the loss of genetic diversity will ultimately make our food monocultures highly vulnerable to any and all kinds of hazards.
Both Jackson and Foley agree that right now we are headed in the wrong direction and there is little time to lose.
Foley ends his interview saying, “I hope we see more collaboration.” Maybe he could start by becoming familiar with Jackson’s work.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.