“We’ve got two billion more people coming to dinner,” Foley said. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that many card tables.” The bigger problem, he said, is that a few billion more people will become wealthier and -- again, if today’s trends continue -- they will want a diet with more meat. Says Foley: “They’re looking at the menu and saying, ‘I think I’ll have the filet mignon.’ ”
So what’s to be done? In his talk, and in a 2011 paper in Nature titled “Solutions for a cultivated planet”, Foley laid out these broad strategies to attack the problems of food security and environmental sustainability:
Stop deforestation: “This is the single most important thing we can do for the environment,” he said. Clearing tropical forests to grow soy or palm has major negative effects on biodiversity and GHG emissions and, he notes, delivers only small food production benefits.
Grow more food on less land: This doesn’t necessarily require breakthroughs in agricultural technology or productivity, though they would help. What’s needed is to bring the best available farming methods, whether organic or conventional, to places where yields are low. “Across Africa, there are huge opportunities to produce yield with agro-ecological methods or green revolution methods,” Foley said. Interestingly, Foley said GMOs are not improving yields, except in India for cotton. They’re “not feeding the world’s poor yet,” he said.
Deliver more food with less water and chemicals. In Israel, farmers generate calories using one-tenth the water used on average by the world’s farmers. By contrast, farmers in India use 10 times as much water as the average farmer. Subsidized water in the U.S. also leads to waste. “We have consumed the entire Colorado River,” Foley said. “It’s gone. One of America’s great rivers.” And some farmers use too much fertilizer, wasting energy and polluting water, while others don’t deploy enough nutrients.
Increase food delivery by reducing waste and changing diet. This means growing less corn for biofuels, throwing away less food and reducing our consumption of meat. In the Nature article, Foley and his colleagues write: “We can increase food availability (in terms of calories, protein and critical nutrients) by shifting crop production away from livestock feed, bioenergy crops and other nonfood applications.” This where we all can make a difference, by eating less meat.
What I like about Jon is the pragmatic way he thinks and talks about food.
So often the conversation about food is personal, emotional and ideological. That’s fine when it fuels the passion around food politics. But solutions need to be driven by science, not ideology.