Foley highlights inefficiencies in global agriculture

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, speaks about sustainable food Friday morning in the Amphitheater.

In the last 50 years, the world’s population has doubled. The economy, when adjusted for inflation, has grown sevenfold.

“We have done more in the last 50 years than all civilization put together,” said environmental scientist Jonathan Foley to the Amphitheater audience Friday, citing unprecedented advances in technology, global development and energy use. Those five decades have seen human civilization require three times more food and water — and four times more fossil-based energy — to sustain itself.

So, Foley said, “How do we live through the most explosive, changing period in human history, and get out of it without causing too much damage?” The central challenges that Foley seeks to address are how to feed the current world population, how to feed the 2 billion additional people projected to populate the globe in the next 36 years, and how to meet these challenges without further damaging the environment.

Foley directs the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, where he is a professor and McKnight Presidential Chair of Global Environment and Sustainability. Next month, he will join the California Academy of Sciences as executive director. His was the fifth and final lecture in this week’s lecture theme, “Feeding a Hungry Planet,” presented in partnership with National Geographic. 

Over the last 30 to 40 years, the world has seen the Green Revolution take over agriculture, a mad dash to boost crop yields with advanced technology, fertilizer and genetically modified organisms.

But Foley thinks the Green Revolution is wilting. Rice and wheat, which feed the world half of its calories, have each declined in yield by 40 percent over the last decade.

Instead, governments are putting money into corn and soybean crops, most of which do not directly feed people. Globally, only 55 percent of the food grown directly feeds humans. Corn and soy are largely used to feed animals and cars, which is far less efficient, Foley said, than feeding people directly. Cow’s milk, for example, only yields 40 percent of the original caloric value fed to the cow to produce it. Meat like chicken, pork and beef are worse, feeding people between 3 and 12 percent of the calories required to produce it.

Between 800 and 900 million people in the world today do not have food security. This is not a result of scarcity, he said, pointing out that 40 percent of food is wasted worldwide. These people are hungry because they lack economic or institutional access to food. And for the first time, the world is home to a global middle class 4 billion strong. Those in countries like China, India, Brazil and Vietnam, who now have extra money to spend, are eating more meat, which adds to demands on global food supply and the environment.

All of this means that the world needs to double its current food supply by 2050.

“We can’t do that,” Foley said. Instead, he said, food systems can be made more efficient. Highly inefficient agricultural techniques of watering practices and fertilization still prevail. Many fertile regions in the world under-produce agriculture, including regions of Mexico, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. The answer to this, Foley said, is supporting disenfranchised small farmers, many of whom are women. These farmers often lack resources such as credit or transportation.

On top of this, forests continue to be cut down to make room for crops, lumber and livestock. Half of that deforestation occurs in Brazil and Indonesia. But Brazil has cut its deforestation by 80 percent in the last six years, a reduction so profound that, Foley said, it is more important to climate change than if the U.S. took every car off the road forever.

Foley sees actions like this one as reason to still be optimistic about the future. Amid all of the limitations and challenges he says the world is facing, humankind is equipped to face reality.

“We know what the problem is,” he said. “We know what to do. We have the solutions we need. We have the tools we need. We just have to get to work.”


Q: As we begin, can you talk a little bit about the impact of weather? I was looking at your map of Africa, and thinking about your point about the inefficiencies of what goes on there. How much of that has to do with just the persistent drought and the problems that are brought to bear by that, regardless of drip and other techniques that we might bring into the game?

A: Obviously, climate and weather patterns have a huge effect on what we can grow and what we can’t grow. The map I was showing of Africa actually takes that into account, because we looked at places that had comparable climates and soil conditions. And it shows even when you look with the climates and soils that are there, they’re still underperforming. And that’s really an economic issue more than it is a weather issue. But when you think about climate changes that are already underway, we’re already seeing the effects — sometimes beneficial, sometimes not — of how weather pattern changes are affecting our crops. Think of the Australian drought of the early 2000s that lasted for about a decade. We’re seeing median boosts and yields in the Midwest, though, because springs are happening a little bit earlier. But if we’re having more extreme rainfall and floods, that might make that a lot worse. It’s going to be a mixed bag, but overall, climate change can be very disruptive to agriculture. It’s planning for the unplannable: we don’t know what it’s going to be exactly yet.

Q: Grains versus fruits and vegetables: most references to food efficiencies per acre that you presented today refer to grains. Where do fruits and vegetables fit into the picture?

A: It turns out fruits and vegetables are what we first think of when we think of the food we get off of a farm, but they’re like 1- 2 percent of the global food production system. Because most of what keeps us alive every day are things like grains, or dairy products, or roots and tubers, meats — stuff like that. Fruits and vegetables are not very big for calories, but they’re hugely packed full of nutrients. That’s why they’re so, so important. But it’d be very hard to live just on fruits, for example, every day. It’d be hard to keep yourself going that way. They’re pretty efficient in some ways. Whether you think per pound, or do you think per calorie, or do you think per dose of vitamins you got — those would be very different. So it turns out, grains are probably more efficient in terms of taking them out of water and turning that into a pound of grain compared to a pound of strawberries, let’s say. It probably takes less water to make the grain, but per pound of vitamin C, the strawberries are fantastic, because they’re just wonderful little packets of nutrients. So when you talk about efficiency, you have to ask, efficiency to do what? Weight? Calories? Or nutrients? So it’s kind of a mixed bag. But fruits and veggies are hugely important, as we know, and fortunately we’re pretty good at growing those things now.

Q: Do you foresee a day where water has a market-driven price to enable conservation? Should it have a market price?

A: That’s a really interesting question. Should water have a price on it? It kind of does already, in some parts of the world, either explicitly or implicitly. And I have mixed feelings about that. Because on one hand, if mart water had a price, then we’d be forced to use market mechanisms to think about it. Like, oh, we wouldn’t be subsidizing water. Think about it this way: we, the public, pay taxes for infrastructure to get water all over the country, and we consider it free. It’s not free. You and I paid for it. We paid for all that stuff. Water pumping, purification, sanitation, sewage treatment: we pay for that. But we are unequally benefiting from it, because companies and ranchers and farmers can get that water mainly for free, and then use it to make things that benefit them. But we don’t get that benefit as the larger public. It’s kind of like socializing the costs and privatizing the benefits. So water does have a price, but it’s hidden. If we made water prices more explicit, so farmers and ranchers and companies paid the right price for water, not being subsidized by us, it might change their incentives about how much they use and how efficient they are. But also, they might pay other people to protect their water. That’s kind of called a “water fund.” They’re actually in South America, all over South America — Ecuador, Colombia — there are places like this. People are paying people in the uplands to protect their forest and their water so that the water is still pure when it comes down to the cities. So it’s like cities are paying the countryside to protect their water. New York did this too with the Catskills. It’s pretty interesting. I think using market mechanisms to help protect water can be a good thing, but on the other hand, we have to recognize that water should be a universal right. I’d hate for people not to have water because they can’t afford it — that’s crazy too. So I guess I have mixed feelings about that. I think the markets can help solve some of our water problems to help take away the hidden subsidies and make those more explicit, but at the same time, market forces and prices must guarantee access to clean, potable water to everyone. Because that’s a much more important human right than anything a market could do. We’ll have to figure out how to do both.

[Smattering of applause]

Q: So what’s the relative balance of emphasis in helping small farmers in Africa between NGOs and the response of wealthier countries through microfinancing?

A: Can you repeat the question?

Q: It has to do with Africa, and what’s the balance in creating that hope between the play of NGOs and that of coordination of major governments?

A: Well, there are three big forces at work. There’s what NGOs are doing. We’ve had, historically, NGOs like Rockefeller, Ford and other big foundations from the United States. Now, the Gates Foundation is investing a lot in Africa. Some people vehemently disagree with the approaches some of those foundations are taking, especially Gates, because it’s more of a high-tech approach — using approaches that may or may not be seen as appropriate. That’s a debate worth having. Although, I think the intentions of the Gates Foundation are very good. Are their approaches appropriate? Not everybody agrees. I have mixed feelings about that myself. But also, NGOs. One of the things that’s kind of tragic is, whenever there’s a food crisis around the world, often in African countries, our country will leap to the aid of the African countries. It’s like, “We’ll bring American food from American farmers.” It even says that on these packages from U.S.C.I.D.: “brought to you by American taxpayers, from American farms, grown by Americans” — and give away food to people who are starving. Let’s say in Sudan, or Ethiopia years ago. It sounds great: we’re feeding people and giving them American food. But you know, in the long run, that actually destroys African agriculture. How would you feel if you’re a struggling farmer who could be feeding your neighbors down the road, but in swoops a helicopter full of free, American food, dumped out of a helicopter, at zero cost to those consumers? It just obliterates the market. What we should be doing is sending money, not crops, frankly. Because if we could help African farmers feed Africans, you’ve solved a longer-term problem than the immediate problem right now. And others would argue — Roger Thurow, who’s a writer for the Wall Street Journal and he works with the Chicago Council, he’s written a number of really great books. He wrote a book called Enough, about food security. He argues, and pretty provocatively, that food aid from America, paying American farmers premium prices, and flying that food at taxpayer cost to, let’s say, parts of Africa, is kind of a hidden subsidy to American farmers. He wrote a chapter of his book that said, “Do American farmers need poor Africans?” That’s kind of provocative, isn’t it? So we have to think about this. I think our first instinct to feed people is great, but long term, we need to help people feed themselves. And that’s a different kind of assistance than we’ve given before.

Q: What strategies can we use to significantly reduce food waste?

A: This is very, very interesting. Food waste is just so ubiquitous. Maybe 30, 40, 50 percent of the food in all of the world is never eaten. In rich countries like ours, we lose it in cafeterias, restaurants, homes, supermarkets — kind of around us, the consumer. But in poor countries, it’s usually around the farmer. The farmer maybe grew crops, but they couldn’t get it to the market. Or they couldn’t sell it at the right time, because it spoiled. Or the train never came by — it’s infrastructure issues, supply chains and so on. That’s a double tragedy, because they lost the food and that poor farmer lost his income. So food waste is a big issue. Are there solutions to it? Yeah, there are probably lots of little solutions. One is to label food more accurately. In the U.S., we have all these weird “consume by, sell by, use by” dates. Does anybody understand that? I’m guilty of this too. When I see the date and it’s one day after, I throw it away. (Someone protests) Well, I don’t anymore, I know, but you’ve got to wait a minute. But couldn’t some smart Silicon Valley entrepreneur have a little dot on the milk that turns red when it’s bad or something? I’m sure somebody could come up with an indicator that measures microbial activity. “If it’s green, it’s good, if it’s red, throw it out.” I don’t know. Or yogurt. How can yogurt go bad? I don’t get that. Is this intentional, that we just throw stuff out and buy more? I don’t get that. But we also have to balance that with food safety. We don’t want to have — “Oh, that mayonnaise has been out for a little while, (groans), do you want to eat it?” How many people today, on the Fourth of July, are going to get food poisoning? Probably a lot. So we’ve got to get smarter about that. But one thing that’s really cool — I’ll give you one example where it worked beautifully. I work at the University of Minnesota. We have 53,000 students. We’re like the third-largest city in Minnesota, ok? Fourth I guess, after Duluth. So that’s a pretty big bunch of people, and we feed a lot of people every day, and there’s a big — I think it’s Aramark, is the company we do — and I don’t work for them, I don’t have any ties to them, blah, blah, blah — but we had a sustainability commitment where our students demanded that the university cut down the amount of energy use, water use, carbon pollution, of the university. So when we got to dining services, we were trying to figure out how we could cut down the amount of energy used in dining services. And they finally caught onto, “Hey, if we got rid of those big plastic trays in the cafeteria, we’d save energy by not having to wash the trays.” You know, you wash those trays all the time. So they got rid of the trays. One day, [“poof” mouth sound], the trays are gone. And so we saved a lot of energy and water on cleaning the trays. But then all of a sudden, people realized that students weren’t throwing away the food they used to throw away. My mom used to say, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach, son.” And you take a 20-year-old guy, I remember that, and you pile all of this crap onto this tray. Like, [monster voice], “It’s free, I’m going to get everything I can.” And you pile it up, and then you probably eat half of it, and then you dump the other half. But now, you’ve got to take what you can carry on a plate or a bowl. You can go back and get more, if you’re hungry, go get more. But it’s serving control, it’s portion control. We gave people the opportunity to eat mega servings and they threw half of it away. So it’s a wonderful story. But we were trying to save water and energy, but we cut food waste in half, like overnight, in all the dorms. It’s kind of amazing. [Applause] Well, I had nothing to do with it, so you’re clapping for those guys. I just observed that, like, it’s pretty cool. But think about the other — I’m from the Midwest — the other “Big 10” schools. Could we talk to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, and I guess Maryland is in the Big 10 now? Rutgers? That’s weird. [Audience laughs] Could we talk to them about it? Could we go to the Ivy League, and say, “Hey, you guys should do this.” Or the SUNY system up here? I don’t know. So think about every hospital, every corporate cafeteria, every school, every elementary school in the country. Get rid of the trays. That would be my first thing. Portion control automatically cuts down waste. The one country that does much better on food waste and food safety than about anybody is probably Japan. So maybe maybe we could also learn from their food systems and their regulations and culture. Maybe we have a lot more to learn there. So work on food waste: it’s the biggest opportunity in the food system is what we don’t even use.