Jon Foley of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is a food security rock star, plain and simple. And he deserves that lofty status in part because he explains our complex 21st century agriculture challenges in such a clear and accessible fashion. See him present (like in the TEDx video above), and you are left wishing all scientists would drop in on the “how to make your work understandable” class that Foley must have aced.
Foley brought that clarity of presentation, mixed with self-deprecating humor, to this past week’s inaugural South by Southwest (SXSW) Eco conference in Austin, Texas. Foley said we must meet three big challenges in the realm of agriculture:
Feeding the population today: One in seven of the world’s seven billion people do not know where their next meal is coming from.
Feeding the future population: The planet is expected to reach more than nine billion people in just 39 years (and may still continue to grow beyond nine billion, rather than leveling off as expected until recently).
Farming the planet sustainably: We are a long way from achieving sustainable agriculture, given overuse of fertilizers, soil erosion and degradation, deforestation (leading to loss of biodiversity), and energy-intensive practices (producing excessive carbon emissions).
To meet the demands of the future, we must double world food supplies by 2050, if not sooner, said Foley, all while reducing our impact on the environment. After laying out a daunting menu of problems, some scientists would retreat from the debates over solutions, claiming scientists must leave the responses to the farmers, industry, civil society, and of course policymakers. Scientists do science, not politics.
But Foley and his colleagues retain their scientific union cards while suggesting specific ways the world might meet the three food security goals listed above. In what must be considered the academic equivalent of a walk-off grand slam, they will be featured as next week’s cover story in Nature and a more accessible derivative in the November issue of Scientific American.
“Today, humans are farming more of the planet than ever, with higher resource intensity and staggering environmental impacts, while diverting an increasing fraction of crops to animals, biofuels and other nonfood uses,” Foley et al. write in Nature. “Meanwhile, almost a billion people are chronically hungry. This must not continue: the requirements of current and future generations demand that we transform agriculture to meet the twin challenges of food security and environmental sustainability.”
Their four-step plan in brief:
Slow agricultural expansion to stop deforestation and the huge ecological cost that stems from expanding into new lands, often to grow animal feed rather than food for direct human consumption.
Grow more food on the acres currently under cultivation. The attention, resources, and innovation applied to the best-producing farms need to also be turned on the least productive farms, where rates as low as 20 percent of potential yields are the norm.
Improve the resource efficiency of agriculture, through better water use, for example. Places like India, where the energy to pump groundwater is effectively free, are very inefficient in the use of water per calorie grown.
Close “diet gaps,” where only 60 percent of what is grown is actually for human consumption (the rest for animals and fuel), and reduce food waste, whether it is spoilage on the way to market or the excesses of a food industry that leaves so much uneaten.
Foley cautions that none of these strategies alone is sufficient to deal with food insecurity or address ecological problems caused by agriculture. We need to reinvent agriculture from the ground up and transition to what he calls “terraculture” – farming as if the planet really matters.