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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: http://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=uJhgGbRA6HkAnd we produced a short, 3 minute YouTube animated clip on global food and environment, which has been very popular. It can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/ umnione#p/u/3/F1IWkbU0SG4