The USDA has been keeping close tabs on the weather lately. Persistent high temperatures coupled with extreme dry weather have resulted in horrible conditions for crops across the U.S., especially in the Upper Midwest. Heavily affected by the drought is the corn crop, which has analysts scrambling to predict how the expected shortage will influence everything from corn futures to the cost of milk. It has also turned the public eye towards talk of — dare I say it? — climate change.
Jon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment and head of the Global Landscapes Initiative, studies the intersection of land use and climate through the lens of “environmental pragmatism.” Recently, Foley was asked to pen a short opinion piece for the New York Times on whether this drought is signaling the beginning of a new Dust Bowl, and if so, how it might be prevented.
Is the current drought so exceptional to warrant fear of another Dust Bowl? Recent popular media pieces have pointed to the extreme weather conditions in the U.S. as an indication of things to come. Bill McKibben, environmental activist, writer, and arguably the most vocal proselytizer of global climate change, wrote in Rolling Stone,
Sandra Postel, founder of the Global Water Policy Project, was interviewed for a short piece by National Geographic. Postel’s take is a bit less gloomy than McKibben’s, but it still gives a warning:
If a warming world is what we can expect, that means more extreme weather events, and potential for more destructive crop losses. The USDA map above indicates that 88% of the U.S. corn crop is within the drought zone. Let that sink in for a minute: eighty-eight percent. How do we feed our growing world with the threat of frequent, extreme weather phenomena looming over us if these are the repercussions we can start to expect? Foley recommends that the current practice of planting in monocultures must change. “It is hard to imagine a system more susceptible to bad weather than the American corn and soybean belt,” he writes. He also encourages changes such as diversifying crop types, no-till farming (otherwise known as direct planting), and organic practices to sustain soils and buffer against future droughts.
What do you think about the weather in the U.S.? Is it cause for alarm, or cause for reflection?
How land-efficient is organic agriculture? Jon Foley addresses questions stemming from a recent paper published in Nature on organic agriculture.
Beyond 7 billion: hunger without end. As part of a gripping 5-part series on the impacts of population growth, the LA Times looks at the challenge of growing enough food. Jon Foley asks, “How will we feed 9 billion people without destroying the planet?”
Finding common ground in environmental debates. Talk of the Nation interviews Jon Foley about environmental pragmatism.
At the 2012 GreenBiz Forum, Jon Foley discusses how we can feed the world and sustain the planet. Listen to Foley’s presentation and others at the GreenBiz One Great Idea website.
Powered by a $2.2 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is launching a three-year project in collaboration with McGill University to improve understanding of how agriculture and the environment affect each other, and to create tools corporations, conservation organizations and countries can use to can optimize the benefits from both.
The project is a response to a sobering need to dramatically boost food production to feed 9 billion people by 2050 while also protecting the ecosystems that make life possible. It will use tools developed by GLI to explore how agriculture’s use of land is changing around the world, how these changes affect people and the environment, and how we can strategically guide changes to boost both food security and environmental protection. Specifically, it will:
- provide detailed information about changes in agricultural area, yields and management over time and around the world and the impacts of these changes on the environment
- improve our ability to predict how changes in climate, fertilizer, irrigation, genetics and other variables affect yield around the world
- develop tools for quantifying trade-offs between food production and environmental protection
- create strategies for boosting food production in the Amazon basin while protecting biodiversity and other aspects of environmental integrity
- produce a Web-based application and other software tools for others to assess and manage the trade-offs of agriculture and the environment.
“Agriculture has already transformed nearly 40 percent of Earth’s land area, putting the squeeze on the services nonagricultural land provides – biodiversity, clean water, carbon storage, flood control, beauty and more,” said GLI lead researcher Jon Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “By providing the resources needed to take a deep dive into current agricultural practices using GLI-developed databases and analysis tools, the Moore Foundation’s grant will help agriculture ramp up to meet future food needs without further compromising the environment.”
“With this substantial boost to our funding, we will be able to make a quantum leap in our efforts to understand farming systems around the world,” added McGill University associate professor Navin Ramankutty, primary collaborator on the project.
“The Global Landscapes Initiative is making some remarkable inroads into addressing the twin challenges of food security and environmental protection,” said Luis Solórzano, program director for environmental science with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “We’re pleased to have the opportunity to lend support to this important effort.”
About the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, established in 2000, seeks to advance environmental conservation and scientific research around the world and improve the quality of life in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Foundation’s Environmental Conservation Program aims at changing the ways in which people use terrestrial, freshwater, and coastal marine ecosystems to conserve critical ecological systems and functions, while allowing sustainable use. For more information, please visit www.moore.org.
Can we feed the 9-billion-plus people anticipated to live on this planet in 2050 without destroying Earth’s life support systems? Writing in the October 12 online issue of Nature (and slated to appear as the cover story in the Oct. 20 print issue), a team of researchers from the U.S., Canada, Sweden and Germany concluded we can—if we successfully pursue sustainable food production on five key fronts: halting farmland expansion in the tropics, closing yield gaps on underperforming lands, using agricultural inputs more strategically, shifting diets and reducing food waste.
“For the first time, we have shown that it is possible to both feed a hungry world and protect a threatened planet,” said lead author Jonathan Foley, head of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “It will take serious work. But we can do it.”
Scientists from the University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, McGill University, UC Santa Barbara, Arizona State University, Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, Stockholm Environment Institute and the University of Bonn have been working together for two years to find an answer to what could be the most compelling question facing humanity today. Combining new data gathered from satellite imagery and crop records around the world with new computer models of global agricultural systems and their environmental impacts, the team developed a plan for doubling the world’s food production while reducing environmental impacts of agriculture.
The research was a response to what Foley calls “a daunting triple threat.”
“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 international team of researchers began by characterizing agriculture today. Using new satellite and ground-based observations, the team documented changes in agricultural lands and their yields over the past 40 years. Currently, farm and ranch lands cover nearly 40 percent of Earth’s land area—the largest use of land on the planet. Though modern agriculture has boosted crops yields, increases between 1985 and 2005 were less than half what is commonly reported and are slowing. And because one-third of crops are used for livestock feed, biofuels and other nonfood products, the number of hunger-abating calories produced per cultivated acre is far lower than it could be—even (perhaps particularly) in fields with high-yielding, but animal-feeding, crops.
All that comes with a hefty environmental price tag. Humans have already cleared 70 percent of all grasslands, half of all savannas, 45 percent of temperate deciduous forests and 27 percent of tropical forests. In addition, intensification of agriculture—changes in irrigation, fertilizer use and other practices aimed at boosting per-acre yield—has increased water pollution, local water shortages and energy use. Strikingly, agricultural activities such as clearing land, growing rice, raising cattle and overusing fertilizers make up the single largest contributor of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, accounting for roughly 35 percent of the total.
Based on data they gathered about crop production and environmental impacts using satellite maps and on-the-ground records, the researchers proposed a five-point plan for feeding the world while protecting the planet:
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.
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.
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.
“Lots of other scholars and thinkers have proposed solutions to global food and environmental problems. But they were often fragmented, only looking at one aspect of the problem at one time. And they often lacked the specifics and numbers to back them up; one always wondered whether these proposed solutions were enough to solve the problem,” said Navin Ramankutty, associate professor of geography at McGill University and one of the team’s leaders.
“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,” Foley said. “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.”
To move from today’s insufficient food system to one that can and does feed us all, without compromising the environment, the research team also recommends:
- Focus on improving agricultural systems where major improvements in food production or environmental protection come with the least expense and effort.
- Pursue approaches that are resilient—that can adapt to the unexpected circumstances that undoubtedly will arise along the way.
- Develop better tools for evaluating costs and benefits of alternatives, so the choices we make clearly move us toward better food security and environmental sustainability.
- Favor the outcome, not the approach. Take the best of conventional agriculture, organic agriculture, industrial farming, small local production, biotechnology and more to create a sustainably intensified global food system.
Foley says, “Providing food and nutrition for 9 billion people without compromising the global environment will be one of the greatest challenges our civilization has ever faced. It will require the imagination, determination and hard work of countless people from all over the world, embarked on one of the most important causes in history. So let’s work together to make it happen. There is no time to lose.”