When we think of landscapes, we tend to think of forests, mountains, meadows, and deserts.  But there is a more prevalent landscape across the globe and that is agriculture.

Agriculture is responsible for deforestation which results in emitting greenhouse gases and the loss of habitat for millions of species of animals.  Agriculture is also one of the largest contributors of pollution from herbicides, pesticides, and the mono-culture practice that strips nutrients out of the top soil killing that ecosystem, and clogging our waterways.  Yet we have some 7 billion people to feed, and that number is growing fast.  How do we reconcile the demands of our civilization with the environmental impact the supply production has on the planet?

Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota looks at the expansive penetration of pastures and croplands of a percentage of overall global landscapes and the consequences for food production for a growing population as the world population is rapidly approaching 9 billion.

Foley classifies the three biggest challenges agriculture as the following:

  1. Feeding the population today
  2. Feeding the future population
  3. Farming the planet sustainably

He then offers this four-step plan to begin to address these challenges:

  1. Slow agricultural expansion to stop deforestation and the huge ecological cost that stems from expanding into new lands, often to grow animal feed rather than food for direct human consumption.
  2. Grow more food on the acres currently under cultivation. The attention, resources, and innovation applied to the best-producing farms need to also be turned on the least productive farms, where rates as low as 20 percent of potential yields are the norm.
  3. Improve the resource efficiency of agriculture, through better water use, for example. Places like India, where the energy to pump groundwater is effectively free, are very inefficient in the use of water per calorie grown.
  4. Close “diet gaps,” where only 60 percent of what is grown is actually for human consumption (the rest for animals and fuel), and reduce food waste, whether it is spoilage on the way to market or the excesses of a food industry that leaves so much uneaten.

Watch his fascinating TEDx talk below to learn more.


Global Landscapes Initiative – Institute on the Environment

We often view land use as a local environmental issue, but it’s quickly becoming a matter of global importance. Today, we use more than 15 million square kilometers, an area about the size of South America, just to grow crops.

Jon Foley: How to Feed Nine Billion and Keep the Planet Too

Jon Foley of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is a food security rock star, plain and simple. And he deserves that lofty status in part because he explains our complex […]