Jon Foley, from the Institute on the Environment, recently gave a seminar entitled “Can we feed a growing world and sustain the planet?” in the UST Biology Department seminar. (If you missed it, you can watch Dr. Foley’s TEDxTC talk at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJhgGbRA6Hk). Below are comments on the seminar by Dr. Chip Small and Breanna Arndt from our department.
On feeding the world, and reasons to be hopeful
The message that I took away from Jon Foley’s seminar, “Can we feed a growing world and sustain the planet?”, is largely one of hope–that agriculture must be, and can be, done in a much more sustainable way. And yet, for me, the path towards achieving this goal is not altogether clear. When I hear talks, or read books by scientists offering a prescription for saving the world, I can’t help but think, “Well, if the world were a dictatorship, and you were the environmental advisor to the dictator, I could see this happening.” But the world is far more complex, and the course of action (or, more accurately, the millions of individual courses of action) that might be best for society over the long run may not be the actions that bring short term benefits to the individuals who make these decisions. It is easy for us to criticize Brazilian farmers who cut down rain forests to graze cattle or raise soybeans, but these are entirely rational decisions–just as me driving my car to work this morning was a rational decision, albeit one that consumed a small amount of non-renewable petroleum and added a little more CO2 to the atmosphere. All actions have costs and benefits, but the problem, as it so often is in environmental economics, is that the costs get passed on to society. There is not a simple solution here, although there are models where conservation biologists and social scientists are working together with local farmers in developing countries to produce sustainably-grown coffee and other projects. Whether this sort of model can scale up, and quickly, seems to be an essential question.
I also find myself reflecting on another economic question from Professor Foley’s talk. The challenge of feeding a growing world is a double-edged sword in the sense that human population will continue to increase over the next 50 years to at least 9 billion people, and at the same time economic development in countries such as China and India is creating a higher demand for meat. I’m somewhat troubled by the presumption that we must bring supply up to match the level of projected future demand. Obviously we want to live in a world with food security for everyone, but this is a complicated proposition. Modern agriculture produces more than enough calories to feed today’s population, but problems of distribution still result in food shortages in parts of the world. Moreover, it seems to me that demand for meat may be somewhat dynamic, just as people tend to drive less when gas prices increase. If we had to pay the true cost for meat (including all the costs currently borne by society ranging from nutrient pollution to the creation of strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria), I suspect we would consume a lot less.
One of the final points made by Professor Foley was that, while our actions as individuals don’t really matter that much (Michael Pollan writes about his “carbon doppelganger” in China who, with each passing year is driving more and eating more meat, erasing Pollan’s own efforts to reduce his carbon footprint), we do have the potential to influence others, exponentially increasing the effect of our actions and producing real change. In the UST Biology Department, this fall we are teaching “The Biology of Sustainability” for the first time, to 150 students. Their new ideas, the optimism that they bring to these immense challenges, and their ability to influence so many others is truly the best reason to be hopeful.
More thoughts on feeding the world sustainably, and the role of the United States
Dr. Jonathan Foley’s seminar last week provided eye-opening insight on the global issue of sustaining a growing population with limited resources. His talk included hard facts along with possible plans of action. This left me with a sense of urgency and energy to try to tackle the issue rather than the classic doom and gloom feeling. That being said, there is still much left uncertain.
Many themes of the seminar relate to the content of UST’s Biology of Sustainability course. Foley mentioned our increasing population due to increasing births, but also increasing survival rates. This is a good thing, but it poses a problem as we run out of space to grow food for everyone. He stated a need for more efficient crop yields more than GMOs, and the problems with overuse of water and nutrients in places like the US while places in Africa do not have enough water or nutrients to sustain sufficient crop yields.
I was surprised when Foley said that “buying local” is actually worse for the environment than buying produce coming from all over the world through places like Walmart, due to efficiency of packaging during transport. I was also struck by his remarks regarding how much water is used to produce one calorie of food and how much of that food is then wasted in this country. I have thought about how much water goes into each bundle of produce when deciding how much food to buy in the grocery store.
Foley’s suggestions for stretching our food resources further made sense, but I couldn’t help questioning the likelihood of people across the world coming together to implement them. It makes sense that reducing consumption of meat products and many other food habits would make our food system more sustainable, but it is highly unlikely that this will happen. People in developed nations like the US are not likely to give up their habits, and it would not go over well to tell developing countries that are just beginning to afford our lifestyle that they cannot engage in those practices.
I almost have to wonder if conflicts among countries would arise if American scientists going into other countries and telling them how to be more sustainable with food production while Americans continue to be wasteful here. Conflicts might kill people before a shortage of food would. This may mean that we really need to focus on getting Americans more globally minded and used to the idea of sacrificing for the common good.
Foley highlighted the fact that this is a global problem, and it is an urgent one. We need to come together, and we need to act now. The uncertainty lies in finding ways to bring about this unity and change.