Monday, October 17, 2011

My Critique of "Feeding the World While Protecting the Planet" by Jon Foley's Team - University of Minnesota

If you somehow missed it, Scientific American magazine has a must-read five page article by environmental studies Professor Jon Foley (Univ. of Minnesota) for anyone interested in the subject of global food security, "Can We Feed the World & Sustain the Planet? A five-step global plan could double food production by 2050 while greatly reducing environmental damage." This is an excellent read and plan, and I appreciate all of the five points made. The longer version is in Nature for a fee.

Foley was featured on this blog not too long ago in this great TED talk.

Here is the link covering the study at the Univ. of Minnesota: International Team Crafts Plan for Feeding the World While Protecting the Planet [Univ. of Minnesota].

The study was covered on NPR, if you'd like to listen to it here.

My criticisms of the study are below:
  • It doesn't mention or pay enough attention to peak oil and energy issues such as fertilizer, chemicals, transportation, storage, and industrial Ag's dependence upon fossil fuels. Preparing for energy depletion in agriculture cannot happen overnight and needs to begin now. The plan assumes that technology will continue to advance and efficiencies will continue to be gained via reduction of waste, inefficient fertilizer use, etc. which may not be true under energy shortage scenarios which would trump all.
  • Because of the above point, I would rather propose that the world prepare for energy and climate change using the foodshed model such as Fred Kirschenmann has described. Another good example would be the plan for the U.S. northeast, Wildlands and Woodlands; A Vision for the New England Landscape by David R. Foster, Brian M. Donahue, David B. Kittredge, et al Harvard. [pdf]. Every region of the U.S. and the globe needs to be working on a plan right now outlining their own sustainability in view of future problems. Agriculture and population issues are regional problems, or certainly will be given energy scarcity.
  • One cannot argue with the fact that reducing livestock consumption would take a strain off grain production requirements. But, rotational grazing and utilizing both poultry and livestock for healthy soil practices a la Joel Salatin is an important aspect of sustainable farming. Other thinkers who have written on this include Dr. E. Ann Clark of Guelph University and Australia's "Grain and Graze." A good counterargument would be from Dr. Frank Mitloehner who describes the advantages of intensification of livestock production. Realistically, I'd expect trends to go towards smaller meat sources such as poultry before humans will give up meat eating altogether. Nonetheless I'd love to see dried bean use, for example, go up to improve both our health and be part of the solution. Instead bean production is going down due to our biofuels/ethanol and government agriculture policy.
  • There is a lack of focus on biofuels/ethanol policies that is important and needs to be addressed. If there is any global food issue that needs to be addressed by setting a global standard, it is on this subject.
  • Because of climate change, I feel a report such as this would need to include the subject of planning for human migrations if it is to be all-encompassing. For example, the U.S. southwest populations may migrate towards the Northeast.
  • Instead of planning to feed the world's growing populations, (yes, I know the scientist's plan - feed everyone and in a few decades the global populations will begin to decline due to urbanization, education and opportunities for women) I think it would be more humanitarian to try to address overpopulation through education now, while realistically preparing for the inability to feed everyone due to our currently unsustainable methods of agriculture in the face of climate change and peak oil. When I was in school the phrase "each one replace one" stuck with me, back when people were actually concerned about overpopulation. I just Google searched that phrase and it came up ONCE.
  • I doubt that real change in global agricultural production can happen without a change in the economic model currently in place that is built upon growth. A good thinker on this subject is ecological economist Joshua Farley, Univ. of Vermont, who advocates a new economic model which focuses upon rewarding the overall good of humanity and emphasizes the quality of life, instead of an endless non-sustainable growth model based upon the short sighted consumption of natural resources.
Regardless, I like and admire the work that Foley is doing, and it is palatable and politically correct for the majority, while being realistic about working with the system that is currently in place.

That said, I think that for now we are continuing to make strides through modern communication and transport, to solve global problems on a global level. But, which plan will be followed and by whom? This is trending, as many such plans seem to be emerging. Some think that a global consciousness will supersede to accomplish what's right.

Who, exactly, is in charge of the globe?

Should things begin to unravel due to economic crises, climate change, oil shocks, or food/water insecurity, then I'd expect a quick return to regional problem solving (and war).

The cynic in me expects that environmental degradation will continue in agriculture to compete by producing ever-more food, fuel, and fiber, just as it will continue in new energy quests and production to satisfy our basic human need for comfort — until it can't.
——Kay McDonald


  1. Thanks for this Kay. I have been reading about this meme of "sustainable intensification" of agriculture for a while now and basically feel as you do. The embedded assumptions are never discussed, and the broader topics you bring up make the prospects for success quite improbable.

    This is why I am such a big fan of Wes Jackson. He gets at the heart of the fundamental assumptions and why a completely new kind of agriculture is needed. The fusion of ecology and agronomy is, in my view, the only real hope we have.

  2. Kay, JP Morgan has a study out today stating that if challenges to RFS2 are enacted, the price of corn would be $2.94/bu. Happy to send to you if interested.

  3. Yes, link, please.

    That # does not surprise me.

  4. Nice review of Jon Foley's work, which is indeed sharp but full of assumptions and acceptance of the status quo.

    Juliet Schor's recent book, Plenitude, offers some useful ideas on changing our consumption practices and seeing 'the good life' differently. She is now working on a book about groups and communities who ARE living differently.