Jon Foley et al On Global Food Security

My classmate and Facebook pal Jon Foley makes good. He is the lead author of a 20-author study that, as I understand it, makes the cover of Nature next week. Simultaneously there is a popular article at Scientific American.

I had an advance copy and promised Jon that I’d talk about it here. Sometimes, though, there isn’t really all that much you can add.

In short, we have a problem: can we feed everybody, sustainably, without our food processes damaging the planet, unsustainably?

From the press release, Jon says:

First, a billion people currently lack adequate access to food, not only creating hunger but
also setting the stage for worldwide instability. Second, agriculture, the single-most important
thing we do to benefit humanity, is also is the single biggest threat to the global environment –
including the land, water and climate that make Earth habitable. Third, with 2 to 3 billion more
people expected in coming decades, and increasing consumption of meat and biofuels, food
demand will be far greater in 2050 than it is today,” Foley said. “Given that we’re not even able
to meet current needs sustainably, how will we feed the anticipated 9-billion-plus of us without
destroying the planet?

The authors do manage to get everything to balance out, barely, using a five point plan:

  1. Halt farmland expansion. Reduced land clearing for agriculture, particularly in the tropical rainforests, achieved using incentives such as payment for ecosystem services, certification and ecotourism, can yield huge environmental benefits without dramatically cutting into agricultural production or economic well-being.
  2. Close yield gaps. Many parts of Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe have substantial “yield gaps”– places where farmland is not living up to its potential for producing crops. Closing these gaps through improved use of existing crop varieties, better management and improved genetics could increase current food production nearly 60 percent.
  3. Use inputs more strategically. Current use of water, nutrients and ag chemicals suffers from what the research team calls “Goldilocks’ Problem”: too much in some places, too little in others, rarely just right. Strategic reallocation could substantially boost the benefit we get from precious inputs.
  4. Shift diets. Growing animal feed or biofuels on top croplands, no matter how efficiently, is a drain on human food supply. Dedicating croplands to direct human food production could boost calories produced per person by nearly 50 percent. Even shifting nonfood uses such as animal feed or biofuel production away from prime cropland could make a big difference.
  5. Reduce waste. One-third of the food farms produce ends up discarded, spoiled or eaten by pests. Eliminating waste in the path food takes from farm to mouth could boost food available for consumption another 50 percent.

The paper, somehow carrying with it Jon’s calm and understated midwestern demeanor, nevertheless makes quite strong claims, both in its results, and for its own achievements. Jon, from the press release again:

What’s new and exciting here is that we considered solutions to both feeding our growing world and solving the global environmental crisis of agriculture at the same time. We focused the world’s best scientific data and models this problem, to demonstrate that these solutions could actually work – showing where, when and how they could be most effective. No one has done this before.

In the end, this is both a tour de force, and at the same time exactly what I expect from Jon, a sustainability sandwich. Yes, it will be really difficult, but no, it is by no means impossible. And while we may be a bit more excitable here at Planet3.0 than Jon tends to be, that is exactly the view of the world we take at Planet3.0 . Yes, we can do this if we try. But we can’t do it by handwaving. It is a close thing. We had best stop playing silly games and get to work.

Congratulations and thanks to Jon and his collaborators for this impressive achievement.

Jon adds, via email,

you might want to look at a talk I presented — “The Other Inconvenient Truth: How Agriculture is Changing the Face of Our Planet”  — at a recent TED event. In this short talk, I give an overview the major effects of agriculture as well as some of the big levers for increasing food production while sustaining our planet.  Here’s the link:

And we produced a short, 3 minute YouTube animated clip on global food and environment, which has been very popular.  It can be seen at:



  1. So, what about dropping agriculture for food factories?

    I mean, basically, greenhouses, elevated structures, and combinations of the two.

    Presuming we can still use direct solar energy for most of it, but we can 1) greatly reduce water use 2) go vertical and greatly reduce land footprint (though much land would be in shadow) 3) reduce vulnerability to weather, which as I understand it we are expecting to get quite a lot of.

    The buildout would be expensive (in these days of jobs jobs jobs that is considered a feature, not a bug) but is there some reason it couldn't happen?

    Already they are growing quite a lot of tomatoes in the West Texas desert in enclosed greenhouses, taking advantage of the ample sun without losing the rare water. Can this, first of all, dominate cash crops? Can it work for staples?

    Culturally, most countries have a lot of sentimental attachment to their rural agricultural past, and plenty of subsidy goes to keeping farmers on the land. Is this the right thing to do when land is at a premium?

    As far as I am concerned (and Foley et al recognize this) agriculture is an immensely destructive process.

    Is this an alternative to threading Foley's needle?

    (Note, I still think there won't be much meat. This idea of growing meat in vats is particularly loony. I use a soy product instead of ground beef for many meals and it's an entirely adequate substitute. Guests tend to be surprised when I tell them they are not eating meat.)

  2. Well, Jon and I come out of a meteorology program, and his mentor was the original paleoclimate modeler, John Kutzbach. So you wouldn't expect him to forget that little detail.

    In fact, it's a key point in his whole career (as in my sort-of career, but that's another story).

    Why do you think "closing the gap" is carbon intensive?

  3. An interesting quote by Mohammed el-Erian, co-CEO of PIMCO:

    > Society -- in particular the U.K. and U.S. -- bought into the notion that the path of development was agriculture to industry to services to finance. And that explains a lot in terms of people’s mindset. The name of the industry went from “the financial services” industry to “the finance industry.” It lost sight of the fact that it services the real economy. You cannot simply exchange paper.

    I'm not sure if this is on topic, but to my defense there is the word "agriculture" in the quote.

  4. Eek.

    In theory these things are published.

    I used the embargo date Jon gave me. But it seems both pieces are paywalled and I didn't notice.

    This is part of the ongoing crisis of science communication.

    Observing copyrights is site policy here. Stuff in the journals does constitute science news. Should I instead only report on stuff where somebody has already flaunted the copyright?

    We apologize for the inconvenience but there is nothing Planet3.0 can really do about it. Many people reading this site know somebody at a university who will quietly work around this sort of barrier in practice. But we can't facilitate that or we become a target of the IP lawyers, to which no thanks.

    The proprietary nature of scientific publishing is a bit off our core interests but may be worth discussing in itself.

    How should the review process work when the marginal unit cost of publication is zero? This changes a lot of things, and the journals are defending a scarcity model that isn't true anymore.

    But, if you want to make a big splash with a big study, don't you still send it to Science or Nature?

    Anyway, again, sorry about that. I'm not sure it's possible to report on science and do much better. Any advice out there?

  5. Leading to an interesting thought: can we (Planet3.0 or similar services) be a Sam's Club of journal access? That is, could we sell paid memberships combined with journal access?

    And if so, would it be ethical to be propping up the old guard in that way?

  6. "The proprietary nature of scientific publishing is a bit off our core interests but may be worth discussing in itself."

    It's *way* off the core focus and should not be discussed here, IMO. We just want to see the article. I think it's just a matter of waiting until next week when it's no longer online only.

  7. Jim, you seem to have a pretty good idea of what this site is supposed to do. Please summaraize on an open thread, so we can talk about it.

    The relationship between science and society is a core interest here. So therefore the ways in which science operates, should operate, might operate, are arguably relevant to the audience. They are certainly relevant to the community of contributors, who, I hope, will be be a broadly representative subset of the readership.

  8. Back to food factories. I'm pretty keen on the more-or-less closed greenhouse systems using fish. Fish wastes fertilise crops which are using the same circulating water as the fish tanks are. Crops and wastes feed the fish.

    Run it so there's enough to gather for the family, the shop or the community and also enough to keep the whole thing going at full pace. The water only needs topping up. Solar runs the power to circulate/aerate water and the temp control.

    (I presume in northern climes one could use geo or waste heat to maintain optimum productivity.)

    I'd dearly love to try one of these at the domestic scale but I've not yet got even the fruit trees planted, let alone the chooks established. Fish will have to wait.

  9. Foley's ideas also include a program of 'Certified Sustainable' for food crops. I'm afraid that won't do -- it is unlikely to be any more successful than the 'Certified Organic' movement which is a total failure, except financially for corporate-scale so-called organic farms, which produce vegetables that are no different (except they cost more). There is no possible widely agreed upon definition of 'sustainably grown'.

    As for Mr. Tobis' suggestion of vertical factory farms --> there are successful factory farms in Europe that produce high-value table vegetables, such as lettuces. A fine idea if it fits the crop and is financially viable, but it will not replace land farming in any significant way, now or in the century-scale future, unless we start a colony on the Moon or Mars.

    First and foremost, let's end the stupid practice of subsidizing the turning of food (corn and sugar) into fuel.

  10. MT, I'm not an expert when it comes to things like aquaponics, but I'd guess it takes huge amounts of resources and energy to get all the water and fertilizer to the factories.

    Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I prefer the idea of mutually beneficial relationships between soil microorganisms and plants.

    Centralising food production costs a lot more energy than getting people to buy and consume locally produced food. And BTW, it doesn't get any more local than your own back yard. It doesn't get much healthier either.

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