University of Minnesota professor cooks up big ideas for feeding the world


Professor Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the U, and his ideas are featured this month in National Geographic Magazine. He's warning that our current agricultural system uses too much water and emits too much greenhouse gas for the environment to handle over the long term.

He says we need a new way to double the amount of available food needed to feed a growing global population of 9 billion people by 2050, while simultaneously reducing the environmental harm caused by agriculture.

Sounds daunting, right?

But Foley and a team of fellow scientists have come up with a five-step plan for doing just that.

– Step One: Freeze Agriculture’s Footprint

– Step Two: Grow More on Farms We’ve Got

– Step Three: Use Resources More Efficiently

– Step Four: Shift Diets

– Step Five: Reduce Waste

This isn’t the first time the U has played an important role in agricultural innovation.

Nobel laureate and University alum Norman Borlaug is credited with playing the key role in staving off starvation in India and Pakistan.

The so-called Father of the Green Revolution came up with ways to improve seeds, breeding methods, fertilizer and irrigation, and dramatically boost crop yields.

“The way he did his research is still having an impact on researchers today,” says Jim Anderson, associate professor in agronomy and plant genetics and a wheat-breeding expert.

Some interesting highlights from Foley’s conversation with MPR News.

The price we pay for our farm practices

"Already agriculture is one of the biggest things we do in the world. The need to feed the present 7 billion people already uses about 40 percent of the land on the planet. Seventy percent of all the water we consume is used to irrigate crops. And also, agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, through deforestation, from the methane that cows and rice fields release, and also something called nitrous oxide that gets emitted into the atmosphere whenever we over-fertilize fields. So even today, agriculture has a pretty big impact on the environment. And as we move to having 9 billion people and a much wealthier population that wants to eat more meats and more dairy and more fats and oils and richer diets, it's only going to get worse. Unless we get smarter. And that's the key."

The stress of a big population

"In the last 50 years, the population of the world more than doubled, which is outpacing all previous human history combined. So in our lifetime, basically the world has more than doubled everything that happened in all of history before it. And that's just the population. During that same time, the economy of the world grew sevenfold, adjusted for inflation. So today, compared to 50 years ago, we've got twice as many people doing seven times more stuff than in all previous history combined. That's amazing."

More food, less environmental harm

"Now we have to move beyond the first Green Revolution and think about: how do we get more food with less use of energy and water and chemicals? And that's where we go back to some of the roots of agriculture, what we see today in organic and what we might call agro-ecology, the idea of working more with nature to do less harm to the environment but still get a lot of food out of it."

Better farming could yield more

"One of the things we should turn to is looking for where there are already low-hanging fruit. For example, there are many places in the world where crop yields are very, very low, but they might be in good climate and soil conditions ... There are places ripe for investment. These places don't need fancy, high-tech agriculture right now. What they need is maybe just a little bit of infrastructure. Getting farmers to work their soil a bit better, to improve the organic matter, to improve soil nutrition and so on. And we could see a doubling, a tripling of yield in many places with very small, modest investments."

There's rich-country waste and poor-country waste

"It turns out about 30 to 50 percent, roughly, of all the food that's grown in the world is never eaten. In rich countries, that's because we throw it away in our refrigerators, our restaurants, our cafeterias and so on. But in poor countries, it's often the same number, but it's around the farmer. It may be because the crop didn't get harvested, or it spoiled in transit, or rotted or got eaten by bugs or something along the way ... We could do so much to reduce waste, improve safety, improve our diets, and so on."

Get rid of cafeteria trays

"At the university, we did one thing that's quite clever: The cafeteria services got rid of cafeteria trays, mainly to save labor on dish washing and water, as kind of an energy saving trick. But they found that students ... tended to take less and eat less. Because of that saying, your eyes are bigger than your stomach. ... It was huge. We have 53,000 students at the U. Now imagine multiplying that by every university, every hospital, every big business in America. Say, 'Get rid of your cafeteria trays.' It'd probably make people healthier, and save the cafeterias money, and dramatically reduce waste. Very simple step, and it's all win-win-win."

Reduce crops that go to cars and cows

"About 85 to 90 percent of all the crops grown in Minnesota don't feed people directly. They're fed to cars, in the form of ethanol, but mainly to animals. Animals are food too, we do eat steak and milk and eggs and all those things, but that's not going to be 100 percent efficient. For every hundred calories of corn or soybeans that we can grow and we could eat, we're only going to get a fraction of that, maybe 10, 20, maybe even 5, depending on what we eat, in the form of meat and dairy products. ... So one way to feed more people is to eat lighter on the food chain. More plants and less meat."

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