Foley to wrap up week with message of hope



There is no silver bullet that can fix the world’s food problems, Jonathan Foley said — but a spray of silver buckshot could do the trick.

“That’s the nature of the problem,” Foley said. “It’s a big, complex problem, and no one person is going to have the solution.”

In that vein, the proposals Foley outlined in his May National Geographic article called “A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World,” aren’t “solutions with a capital ‘S,’ ” but starting points for consideration, Foley said.

At 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, will wrap up Week Two, “Feeding a Hungry Planet,” which was presented in partnership with National Geographic.

Foley, whose National Geographic piece commenced an eight-month series for the magazine on the future of food, will frame  three major food issues the world is facing.

“Sometimes, we’re only looking at one aspect of the food problem, and one potential solution,” Foley said.  “That’s not how we’re going to get this done. We have to pull all the threads together into a larger fabric of the challenge. … These are interwoven challenges, and we have to look at them as a single piece. If we fail at any one of these issue, we fail altogether.”

The first issue is that there are about 1 billion people on the planet who are malnourished, a figure Foley called “obscene.” 

Second, that number is likely to grow. 

Finally, Foley said, the food needs of today are already environmentally damaging, and water, land and the climate all stand to be further negatively impacted in the future.

“If we don’t figure out how to meet the needs of a growing population and a growing economy, if we don’t curb that, we’re going to put a major stress [on the environment],” he said.

The hurdle to bringing about lasting change, Foley said, is a muddled public discourse. That’s where he hopes science comes in.

“Folks have very strongly held points of view about particular problems and a particular approach, as if there is a silver bullet and solution,” he said. “The problem, as with any issue, is this emotional, polarizing mix-up of social, political agendas. It’s hard to tease out, but as a scientist, I’m trying to navigate through the numbers, see if they add up. We can do this. But it’s going to take a lot of silver buckshot.”

Foley, a professor and McKnight Presidential Chair of Global Environment and Sustainability, will take on a new job in August: executive director of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. 

Long an academic and a scientist, Foley has researched and published on numerous global issues, but in the last several years, his attention shifted to food’s impact on the environment.

In Foley’s National Geographic piece, he suggests ways to feed the projected 2050 world population of 9 billion. Those steps are to freeze agriculture’s footprint, grow more on existing farms, use resources more efficiently, shift diets and reduce waste.

“There are a lot of solutions to address these issues, and it requires a sense of collaboration, an ability to talk across divisions and find common ground,” he said. 

“Farmers markets, industrial agriculture, no one thing is going to be a perfect bullet. Looking past our own belief systems, that approach is helpful. That’s an approach we need on board.”