How to Feed Nine Billion People and the Planet Too

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.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

4 responses

  1. Folks, I have spent 25 years and millions of dollars creating a wastes to food system that cleans up the atmosphere and produces food from human wastes and agricultural wastes. The system is a mobius strip of materials handling where the food comes from greenhouses with controlled atmosphere and generates more oxygen than C02.

    The program produces electric energy and foods all at once and reduces the costs of both as well as wastes disposal.


    Thanks for your attention.

    Curtis Lawrence Harris

  2. I would agree with the article in that we are eating too much meat, too much of the wrong meat. We are also strip mining our oceans.

    My own feeling is that if you look for the source of these problems, you will inevitably end up in cities.

    I have developed and am field testing a system whereby people living on a dollar a day can work their way up to aquaponics and solar power, providing there is inequality of income and flat roofs available for use.

    A roof on a building, and the walls for that matter, are an interface between nature and human engineering. My systems are essentially APPs that click on to buildings. They treat organic waste, process it into useful products while producing soil elements for additional roof farms.

    I am not writing this because I am looking for funding. I have been beating that off with a stick because it needs to be applicable everywhere. The focus is on ingenuity and using what is available in the environment rather than on capital (which most of the world cannot get).

  3. We would not have to ask ourselves this question if we were to lower our consumption, and still live a healthy and happy life. We have grown too greedy and expect others to change all strategies of production to satisfy our greed. How much can we ask from the land? We are already turning what was productive land into non-productive deserts through over cultivation and over use of chemicals. Would not the answer of feeding the 9 billion be in sustainable consumption, rather than looking for ways of producing more?

  4. It occurs to me that we need to start with the indigenous people (possibly illiterate) throughout the world who are living in desert prone areas etc Find out how they survive with minimum amounts of water.

    Bring in people such as Bunker Roy and his community’s philosophies. See:-,

    See what the Barefoot College has achieved with out degrees and formal education, by illiterate people (so called & dismissed)

    In Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boondein, Shri Anupam Mishra documents the myriad, well-organised ways in which the people of Western Rajasthan have harvested and managed water over centuries, through work of the utmost dedication, painstaking detail and community-led action. These systems have survived the test of time, and are present in most villages and towns of the desert state even today.
    Also take note of his first words of his talk ”please switch off your proper English programs installing your brians”

    Once again the concept was devised 400+- years ago when degrees were not available and maintained through the years by illiterate people.

    Please note Dictionary definitions of the word illiterate :-
    A person who is unable to read or write.
    unlettered – ignorant – uneducated – unlearned

    Literacy has traditionally been described as the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently and think critically about printed material. (surely most of our new concepts come from non printed sources

    Here is the educated world’s problem. We the educated (generally) feel that we are all knowing and those that do not have that education are ignorant and unable to learn.
    In both the examples above this theory is disproved.

    Most of our theories and education systems were developed during the era of plenty, however we have millions of unrecognised experts who have lived a life where food and water were, and still are essentials to life.

    Let us sit down and ask these people what to do. Or is that too hard a blow to our educated ego’s?
    Statistics are wonderful but to they create any positive results?

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