Jon Foley: I think we need a new kind of agriculture – kind of a third agriculture, between the big agribusiness, commercial approach to agriculture, and the lessons from organic and local systems.
Jon Foley is director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. He’s envisioning a reinvention of global agriculture – the creation of a hybrid of industrial and organic farming.
Jon Foley: Can we take the best of both of these and invent a more sustainable, and scalable agriculture?
Foley said that the large amount of food produced by industrial farms is needed to feed a population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. But, he added, these farm’s use of resources isn’t sustainable.
Jon Foley: Seventy percent of the water we use goes into agriculture. A third of our greenhouse gases are caused by agriculture and land use clearing.
On the other hand, he said, while organic agriculture – farming without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers – might have a lighter impact on the environment, he is skeptical about whether it can produce enough food.
Jon Foley: Organics feed about 1% of our global calories, and that’s not enough. What we could do is take the lessons of stewardship of organic matter in soils, from organic methods, and scale them up with commercial tools.
Foley said that organic and local food – what many people consider to be sustainable agriculture – would not be able to scale up in order to feed the world’s population.
Jon Foley: Organic is not sustainable at the scale of 7 billion people, we couldn’t feed 7 billion that way, I don’t think. Local food is good for a lot of things, but it doesn’t reduce greenhouse gases like a lot of people think it does. It doesn’t do anything about deforestation or methane or nitrous oxide.
He said that the scope of the global food challenge requires a spirit of compromise.
Jon Foley: Let’s put down our knives. There’s a very tense, polarizing debate between people who believe big agribusiness and organics are enemies of each other. That’s ridiculous – the world needs both and we need the lessons from both. There’s some really smart people and good ideas along the whole spectrum here. And the job at the end of the day is to feed the world and not destroy it.
Learning to love science. As a producer for EarthSky, Lindsay Patterson interviews some of the world's most fascinating scientists. Through EarthSky, her work content is syndicated on some of the world's top media websites, including USAToday.com and Reuters.com. Patterson is also charged with helping to stay in steady communication with the thousands of scientists who contribute to EarthSky's work of making the voice of science heard in a noisy world. She graduated from Colorado College with a degree in creative writing, and a keen interest in all forms of journalism and media.