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Can we feed the planet without trashing it? Jon Foley’s ‘yes’ wins major award

REUTERS/John Gress
Agriculture is using 40 percent of all the land on earth; it's using 70 or 90 percent of all the water, depending on how you do the bookkeeping, to irrigate crops.

Jonathan Foley, now in his sixth year as director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Environment, got some big news the other day: his work on global environmental systems had brought him the Heinz Award in Environment.

To term this award prestigious is to apply faint praise; past honorees in the Environment category include, for examples, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Amory Lovins and James Hansen.  From the citation:

“Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” a five-point plan developed by Dr. Foley together with colleagues around the world, avoids the ‘silver-bullet’ approach which narrowly focuses on only one problem at a time.

Instead, studying a range of factors, the plan takes a deeper look at agriculture and finds opportunities to deliver more nutrition to the world while reducing waste, improving efficiency and sustaining the world’s ecosystems and freshwater resources.

The plan addresses the challenge of feeding a projected population of 9 billion people by 2050, and has become a landmark publication for scientists and policymakers on global food security.

Jon Foley

Following are excerpts from a conversation we had last Friday about the award, the work it recognizes and how he sees his scientific future. I didn’t ask him how he plans to spend the $250,000 that comes with the award:

The announcement kind of blew me away, because a lot of my heroes out there, people I really look up to in my community, are people who’ve been previous recipients, and far more deserving than I am. So it’s both gratifying and humbling.

I love that the work we’ve been doing as a group — I didn’t do any of this by myself; it’s stuff I’ve done with students, colleagues and partners over the years — is getting recognized. But I’ve lived in Minnesota long enough now to feel very uncomfortable with the personal attention, ha-ha.

* * *

We’ve been working for a number of years now to do two things: One is to get a global picture of agriculture and the environment put together with real data — to say, look, we could have all the debates and discussions and arm-waving we want. But to really make progress as scientists, what can we do to bring these data together?

We worked to track how land is being used around the world, what is it growing, how is that agriculture affecting the environment in key things like water quality, climate change, biodiversity.

You know, we have to grow food, and we also — I believe — have to sustain the environment. Neither of these is optional, so what can the data tell us about where we can do both things well?

It turns out satellites are very good at measuring forest, or non-forest, but that doesn’t tell you much about what people grow on that land after it’s cleared. How long did it stay cleared? Is it poor people, subsistence farmers, growing stuff? Or is it cash crops going to international trade?

We pioneered ways of linking social and economic data on the ground with satellite data from space in ways nobody had really done before. So it turns out that here in St. Paul and in Montreal, of all places, where we have partners, we have probably the largest collection in the world of global environmental data and agricultural data in one place.

Every country in the world does basically a census of agricultural land and production every year. We’ve compiled all of that information going back decades — a lot of it on paper and very hard to get. Then we stitched it together  digitally with what the satellites were seeing.

* * *

We’re living in a time that’s kind of a paradox. On the one hand, most of humanity is better off than ever before. We are living better lives, in aggregate, than any previous generation in terms of life expectancy, health, violence, nutrition, education, human rights … far from perfect, of course, and with a lot of big exceptions.

My premise is, all of this is true, but if you want it to continue to be true, then you can’t be mining the planet’s endowment of natural resources. If we prop up our generation’s well-being by depleting our soils, our water, screwing up our climate, wiping out vast amounts of biodiversity, we’ll be clearly one of the last generations to live better than its ancestors.

We are living a really great life, but we can’t have a big party and trash the house.

* * *

The math on this is pretty straightforward. My good colleague David Tilman here has written a very interesting paper on it.

We’ve got about 7.2 billion people in the world today, the official figure, and by the middle of the century we’re supposed to be at 9 to 9.5 billion, assuming business as usual: birth rates are still declining, life spans are still getting longer.

That’s about a 28 percent increase. If that were the only thing that was happening, adding 2 billion more people, most of them in poorer parts of the world, then the food requirements of the future would be 28 percent higher than they are today, right?

A bigger part, right now, than population growth is the expectation of wealth increasing around the world as well.  China, India, Brazil, Russia, all the big transition economies, they’re getting much wealthier quickly and if history’s any guide, they will eat richer diets. Richer in meats, dairy products, sugars, oils.

Tilman and colleagues estimated that with population and wealth projections — again, if history is any guide — there will be a doubling of global food demand by 2050. About a third of that’s from population, and about two-thirds from unchecked dietary growth.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has a lower estimate, for a 60 or 70 percent increase by 2050; Tilman and others are saying it’s more like 80 to 110 percent. But the bottom line is, either one is a big challenge, and I don’t think either can be met with today’s agricultural practices.

You can grow more yields, but that only gets you so far. You also have to think about the food we already grow: Can we really afford to eat that much meat? And can we really afford to throw one-third of all our food away?

* * *

Can everybody in the world go on the American diet trajectory as they get wealthier? To me, clearly, the answer is probably not.

But to me, the biggest, lowest-hanging fruit is the food that never gets eaten — in rich countries because of over-serving, where things get left in restaurants or cafeterias or in our refrigerators for too long; in poor countries because maybe farmers couldn’t get it to the market in the first place, of transportation problems or spoilage or maybe the mice got it.

It’s an overworked metaphor, but we aren’t going to be able to solve this with a silver bullet. We need silver buckshot.

We need to do three things:   

  • We have 7 billion people in the world right now, and almost a billion don’t have regular, secure access to food, mainly due to poverty and bad governance institutions. They can’t get to the food we already grow in the world, or they can’t afford it. So that’s a monumental challenge unto itself: just make sure everybody in the world today gets good food.
  • Then we have to figure out how to do that with a moving target — adding 2 billion more people, while a couple of billion who are already here are getting richer and wanting better diets.
  • And then third — and this is where I come in — is how do you do this on a finite planet that is experiencing huge environmental impacts from agriculture?  Agriculture is using 40 percent of all the land on earth; it’s using 70 or 90 percent of all the water, depending on how you do the bookkeeping, to irrigate crops. Agriculture is the biggest source of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution into waterways and even coastal oceans.

* * *

By the way, agriculture is the largest single economic sector in contributions to climate change — roughly a third of all our greenhouse gases, it’ s estimated, come from agriculture-related sources: deforestation, methane from cattle and rice fields, nitrous oxides from when we use fertilizers too much.

A lot of people think it’s “food miles,” from shipping food long distances, but it turns out that’s a very small factor in comparison. I love local agriculture and local food, so many cool things happen with that, but it turns out the energy used to move food around the world isn’t that large in the grand scheme of things.  

Ironically, sometimes food that travels halfway around the world on a boat actually uses less fuel than something grown pretty close by and delivered on a pickup truck.

Actually, suburban drivers going to the grocery store or farmers’ market in an SUV for one bag of groceries are probably one of the biggest emitters in what it takes to get some food to your plate — a lot less efficient than a truck packed floor to ceiling, and way less efficient than a train or cargo ship.

* * *

I’m sort of a global environmental generalist. I tend to like to focus on a problem for a few years and then move on and see where I can try to help make an advance in other important areas.

So I might shift to something else. But food is definitely something we need to keep thinking very hard about.

* * *

The Foley paper referenced in the Heinz Award citation, “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet,” was published in the journal Nature in October 2011 and is still available online. As I told him in our chat last week, I’ve rarely read a paper that motivated me so strongly to read every footnote and click every link. Concise, lucid and provocative.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Tom van der Linden on 03/04/2014 - 09:29 am.

    Apply this to ag research at U of M

    Ron, this certainly lays out the big picture. It also asks for developed nations to share advanced agricultural knowledge and technology with less developed nations.
    The U of M, and most major research universities, have been moving toward a proprietary world of “patented” technologies and genetics. What would the author suggest? How should ag research be paid for so that universities are able to share their knowledge freely?

  2. Submitted by Wilbur Ince on 03/04/2014 - 11:50 am.

    Mr Foley’s Approach is Laughable

    Mr. Foley’s implicate assumption is that we are doing OK now, and just need more smart technology to meet the future head on. Unfortunately this is far from today’s reality. There is too much evidence piling up to believe another “don’t worry technology will get us out of this” approach.

    Mr Foley and the rest of the world needs to address the reality of overpopulation. It drives all current issues with resources, farming and global warming.

    Of course Big AG and big education will shower accolades on Mr Foley and his approach, he is the mouthpiece for their agenda. Unfortunately for Mr Foley, the situation on the ground is quite different, and won’t go away any time soon. Time will tell who is right.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/04/2014 - 04:03 pm.

      “…overpopulation. It drives all current issues…”

      You’ve identified the most significant factor of all, the one that is THE root variable in any discussion of sustainability, yet is mentioned only in passing in most discussions of this kind.

      What is the point in clinging to a belief that a population of 12 or 15 billion people is viable ?? In order to believe this you have to ignore the facts of today, which do not portend a viable future.

      Has anyone but the Chinese even made a serious attempt at population control ?? I realize the way they’ve implemented their one child policy is brutal, even cruel, but then without it, they say they would have another 300+ million people today to feed, house, provide health care and all the infrastructure, physically and economically, that 300 million people require. Obviously, this would have led to a lot of suffering by their whole society. So which is more heartless: a non-policy on population control (call it “individual freedom” if you like), or a one child policy like China’s ??

      Population control comes first. Then we are in position to design policies to sustain our resources. If we don’t implement some kind of effective population control, our resource policies will fail.

  3. Submitted by Lance Groth on 03/04/2014 - 04:35 pm.

    Hopeful, but skeptical

    I have not yet had time to study Mr. Foley’s paper, but will.

    After reading this article and skimming a few points in Mr. Foley’s paper, my first reaction is that it seems to amount to improving efficiencies; tightening-up current practices, reducing waste, reducing environmental degradation, shifting diets. That’s all good, I’m sure, but I have to wonder if it simply kicks the can down the road a few decades at best. Let’s stipulate that we can feed 9.5 billion people without utterly trashing the biosphere (dubious, as it’s half trashed already). Then what? What happens when the population goes to 12 billion, or even more? People don’t generally make a major change in their way of living until forced to by crisis. If 9.5 billion are being adequately fed, including the discussed increases in quality and variety expected by affluent people, why would we think they would make changes toward sustainability if it means compromising at all on lifestyle? No one wants to make the long climb out of poverty only to step back when affluence is achieved.

    Mr. Ince is correct that the fundamental problem is overpopulation. It is this that drives all other major problems: energy, food, habitat loss, environmental degradation, the human contribution to climate change, fresh water draw-down, etc. The long term and primary goal should be voluntary reduction in population levels, driven by education and economic incentives, until we reach a level of sustainability. Short of that, I don’t see how any of these problems go away. After all, the vaunted Green Revolution only served, in the end, to enable the overpopulation that led to the problems mentioned above. That may sound harsh – and I do not advocate letting people starve – but it is true nonetheless.

    I also didn’t see any mention – perhaps I will when I read the paper in detail – of additional challenges such as the impact of climate change, changes in rainfall patterns, droughts, rising seas, etc., on agriculture, or the possibility of intense feedback loops reinforcing global warming as temperatures rise. Agricultural production in some areas may well fall due to these and other factors. Aquifers are being drawn down so sharply that I don’t see how widespread irrigation can continue more than a few more decades, maybe less with persistent drought conditions in some agricultural areas. The oceans are being fished-out and otherwise trashed – how is that going to change?

    So, I hope Mr. Foley is right and we can finesse a way out of this mess, but I remain pessimistic.

  4. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/04/2014 - 10:20 pm.

    Future History

    My impression of this article and approach is that Mr. Foley isn’t trying to solve all the world’s problems, such as over-population, in one shot. He’s concentrating on one aspect–agriculture–to get that in shape while others work on the other world issues. Yes, population is the underlying reason and it needs to be addressed, but we also need to take a hard look at the world’s food supply at the same time as that can help alleviate some of the pain and suffering that comes with too many people.

    Contrary to some of the posts above, the world’s population is predicted to top out at about 9 billion people and not continue on up to 12 billion or points north. Perhaps the figures and assumptions have changed since then, but last year National Geographic did a thorough article on the subject. The three main factors that are going to reign in population growth are

    1. Better education
    2. Access to better health care and family planning
    3. And something else that I can’t remember when I have a cocktail in one hand and a keyboard in the other.

    Nine billion people certainly sucks big green donkey tails, especially when you consider that a good portion of them will want first world resource access and food, but it’s a heck of a lot better than 12 billion people. We’ll still need to work on other aspects of the global equation, such as global warming, fishery depletion, pollution, and refugee displacement, but I give Mr. Foley credit for taking a big bite out of the overall equation.

    How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

  5. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/04/2014 - 11:47 pm.

    How many billions in our future ?

    In my post above, I mentioned the non-viability of a population level of 12 – 15 billion, and a couple commenters correctly pointed out these numbers are well past the current best-regarded estimates in the range of 9 billion or so.

    See for the U.N.’s 2004 “World Population to 2300” document, which has quite a bit of fascinating information. This document sets forth high and low scenarios and estimations and the underlying assumptions of each. In particular, see its Figure 7, about which it says:

    “The high and low scenarios are considerably different (table 1). Population will not level off in either case. In the high scenario, it will go from 10.63 billion in 2050 to 36.44 billion in 2300.” and

    “Changes in world population over 50-year periods (figure 7)
    reinforce the impression that substantial longrange growth or decline is within the realm of possibility, though not necessarily the most likely future path for population.”

    The critical factors that lead to high and low estimations, and ultimately a “best guess”, are based on limited information, judgement, and to some degree, speculation. In sum, there is a very substantial uncertainty about ALL these numbers.

    In addition, we really do not know if even the current level of population is sustainable over a far longer term.

    • Submitted by Lance Groth on 03/05/2014 - 01:53 pm.

      The definition of “is”

      “In addition, we really do not know if even the current level of population is sustainable over a far longer term.”

      I suppose it depends on how you define “sustainable”. If by that we mean a human population whose needs are met within the ongoing rate of renewal of global resources; i.e., without plundering & further degrading the environment, leaving plenty of space for nature and a healthy biosphere, then 7 billion, or 9 billion, is not sustainable (judging by the impact we’re having on the planet thus far). If we mean “can they be fed”, then it may be, but at the cost of a degraded world. What the population target should be to meet the former definition is debatable, but a common number I have seen bandied about is 2 billion.

      Of course, choosing to reduce population over the long term has economic implications as well. A declining population does not support the traditional model of endless growth under which we have been operating. At least, not as long as we are confined to a single planet.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/05/2014 - 03:42 pm.

        It’s easier to see what’s NOT sustainable…

        …than to say what we mean by sustainable, but we’re going to have to define it, somehow.

        NOT sustainable is that which will obviously lead to overwhelmingly negative consequences, such as, for example, massive waste of water in modern agriculture, the #1 user of water. Another is continuing to use the oceans as a dumping ground. I’m sure the readers here can add plenty more examples. As a people, we are engaging in numerous activities which are not sustainable over the long term.

        We continue these, worshipping the fallacies of eternal growth, magical future technologies, and the earth as an infinite absorber of our excesses. We need somehow to replace these fallacies with a steady state economy, reliable long term technologies including low-tech, and a vast reduction in producing waste, respectively.

        Maybe we should also redefine what we mean by “long term”. I don’t see how the current population level can be sustained over, say, 50,000 years, 10,000 years, or maybe even 1,000 years. It may sound crazy to think in terms of these kinds of time spans, but I think it is the key to defining sustainability, not a timeline that ends in 2050 or even 2300.

      • Submitted by tim luchsinger on 03/09/2014 - 07:44 pm.

        did you know

        if we divided the surface of the land on the planet we would all get , more than 5 Acers per person, and if we planted that we could feed 10X the population of the earth in the next 100 years???

        • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/09/2014 - 10:07 pm.


          Most of that land does not have water or soil suitable for agriculture. Raw numbers may look pretty, but they’re not very useful for a reasoned debate.

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