January 19, 2018Important news or anything!

TEDx Express: The Other Inconvenient Truth – Jonathan Foley

Home / Agriculture / TEDx Express: The Other Inconvenient Truth – Jonathan Foley

Everything in this article is directly attributable to Jonathan Foley, unless otherwise noted.
Tonight, I want to have a conversation about this incredible global issue that’s at the intersection of land use, food, and environment, something we can all relate to, and what I’ve been calling the other inconvenient truth.
Humanity’s Presence on Earth

This is what our planet looks like from outer space at nighttime.

01 World Transformed

If you were to take a satellite and travel around the planet … the thing you would notice first is how dominant the human presence on our planet is. We see cities, we see oil fields, you can even make out fishing fleets in the sea, that we are dominating much of our planet, and mostly through the use of energy that we see here at night.

02 Clearing Land

This is part of the Amazon Basin, a place called Rondônia. If you look really carefully in the upper right-hand corner, you’re going to see a thin white line, which is a road that was built in the 1970s. If we come back to the same place in 2001, what we’re going to find is that these roads spurt off more roads, and more roads after that, at the end of which is a small clearing in the rainforest where there are going to be a few cows. These cows are used for beef. We’re going to eat these cows. And these cows are eaten basically in South America, in Brazil and Argentina. They’re not being shipped up here. But this kind of fishbone pattern of deforestation is something we notice a lot of around the tropics, especially in this part of the world.

[Here’s a similar example in Bolivia’s Amazon.]

03 Clearing Land Bolivia

In 1975 … there’s a lone farmer out there in the middle of the primeval jungle.
In 2003 … the landscape looks a lot more like Iowa than it does like a rainforest.

What you’re seeing here are soybean fields. These soybeans are being shipped to Europe and to China as animal feed, especially after the mad cow disease scare about a decade ago, where we don’t want to feed animals animal protein anymore, because that can transmit disease. Instead, we want to feed them more vegetable proteins. So soybeans have really exploded, showing how trade and globalization are really responsible for the connections to rainforests and the Amazon — an incredibly strange and interconnected world that we have today.

The Impact of Agriculture: Land

One of the questions we’ve been asking is, how much of the world is used to grow food, and where is it exactly, and how can we change that into the future, and what does it mean?

Using satellite data and ground-based data to track farming on a global scale … this is what we found.

05 Farming a Planet

This map shows the presence of agriculture on planet Earth. The green areas are the areas we use to grow crops, like wheat or soybeans or corn or rice or whatever. That’s 16 million km2′ worth of land. If you put it all together in one place, it’d be the size of South America. The second area, in brown, is the world’s pastures and rangelands, where our animals live. That area’s about 30 million km2, or about an Africa‘s worth of land. And it’s the best land, of course. What’s left is, like, the middle of the Sahara Desert, or Siberia, or the middle of a rain forest.

04 Cropland Around the World

We’re using a planet’s worth of land already. About 40% of the Earth’s land surface is devoted to agriculture, and it’s 60 times larger than … suburban sprawl and cities. Half of humanity lives in cities today, but a 60-times-larger area is used to grow food.

The Impact of Agriculture: Water

So we’re using an enormous amount of land for agriculture, but also we’re using a lot of water. We already use about 50% of the Earth’s fresh water that’s sustainable, and agriculture alone is 70% of that.

We’ve doubled the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus around the world simply by using fertilizers, causing huge problems of water quality from rivers, lakes, and even oceans, and it’s also the single biggest driver of biodiversity loss.

This is a photograph flying into Arizona.

06 Irrigating Desert

“What are they growing here?” It turns out they’re growing lettuce in the middle of the desert using water sprayed on top. This water’s got to come from some place, and it comes from here, the Colorado River.

07 Colorado River

[Photos taken in the exact same location on a typical, average day —  not a flood, not a drought.] The difference is mainly irrigating the desert for food [and for golf courses in Scottsdale]. This is a lot of water. We’re mining water and using it to grow food, and today, if you travel down further down the Colorado, it dries up completely and no longer flows into the ocean. We’ve literally consumed an entire river for irrigation.

[And it’s] not even the worst example in the world. This probably is: the Aral Sea.

08 Aral Sea Decline

This is in the former Soviet Union in between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, one of the great inland seas of the world. But there’s kind of a paradox here, because it looks like it’s surrounded by desert. Why is this sea here? The reason it’s here is because, on the right-hand side, you see two little rivers kind of coming down through the sand, feeding this basin with water. Those rivers are draining snowmelt from mountains far to the east, where snow melts, it travels down the river through the desert, and forms the great Aral Sea. Well, in the 1950s, the Soviets decided to divert that water to irrigate the desert to grow cotton in Kazakhstan, to sell cotton to the international markets to bring foreign currency into the Soviet Union. They really needed the money. Well, you can imagine what happens.

This is not only a change in water and where the shoreline is, this is a change in the fundamentals of the environment of this region. The Soviet Union didn’t really have a Sierra Club. So what you find in the bottom of the Aral Sea ain’t pretty. There’s a lot of toxic waste, a lot of things that were dumped there that are now becoming airborne. One of those small islands that was remote and impossible to get to was a site of Soviet biological weapons testing. You can walk there today. Weather patterns have changed. Nineteen of the unique 20 fish species found only in the Aral Sea are now wiped off the face of the Earth. This is an environmental disaster writ large.

The Impact of Agriculture: Atmosphere

So we use a lot of water, a lot of land for agriculture. We also use a lot of the atmosphere for agriculture.

It turns out agriculture is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) too. If you look at CO2 from burning tropical rainforest, or methane coming from cows and rice, or nitrous oxide from too many fertilizers, it turns out agriculture is 30% of the GHGs going into the atmosphere from human activity. That’s more than all our transportation. It’s more than all our electricity. It’s more than all other manufacturing, in fact. It’s the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases of any human activity in the world. And yet, we don’t talk about it very much.

A Necessary Evil

[So] agriculture [is] dominating our planet, whether it’s 40% of our land surface, 70% of the water we use, 30% of our GHG emissions. Without a doubt, agriculture is the single most powerful force unleashed on this planet since the end of the ice age. No question. And it rivals climate change in importance. And they’re both happening at the same time.

[Yet] we completely depend on [agriculture]. It’s not optional. It’s not a luxury. It’s an absolute necessity. We have to provide food and feed and, yeah, fiber and even biofuels to something like 7 billion people in the world today, and if anything, we’re going to have the demands on agriculture increase into the future. It’s not going to go away. It’s going to get a lot bigger, mainly because of growing population.
It’s Only Going to Get Worse

We’re 7 billion people today heading towards at least 9, probably 9.5 before we’re done.

More importantly, changing diets. As the world becomes wealthier as well as more populous, we’re seeing increases in dietary consumption of meat, which take a lot more resources than a vegetarian diet does.

So more people, eating more stuff, and richer stuff, and of course having an energy crisis at the same time, where we have to replace oil with other energy sources that will ultimately have to include some kinds of biofuels and bio-energy sources. So you put these together. It’s really hard to see how we’re going to get to the rest of the century without at least doubling global agricultural production.

Increasing Agricultural Production

How are we going to double global agricultural production around the world?

Farming More Land

This is an analysis we’ve done, where on the left is where the crops are today, on the right is where they could be based on soils and climate, assuming climate change doesn’t disrupt too much of this, which is not a good assumption.

10 Farming More Land

But the problem is the remaining lands are in sensitive areas. They have a lot of biodiversity, a lot of carbon, things we want to protect. So we could grow more food by expanding farmland, but we’d better not, because it’s ecologically a very, very dangerous thing to do. Instead, we maybe want to freeze the footprint of agriculture and farm the lands we have better.

Farming Land Better

[These are] places in the world where we could improve yields without harming the environment.

11 Yield Improvements

The green areas here show where corn yields (just showing corn as an example) are already really high, probably the maximum you could find on Earth today for that climate and soil. The brown areas and yellow areas are places where we’re only getting maybe 20 or 30% of the yield you should be able to get. You see a lot of this in Africa, even Latin America, but interestingly, Eastern Europe, where Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries used to be, is still a mess agriculturally. Now, this would require nutrients and water. But we can do this, and there are opportunities to make this work. But we have to do it in a way that is sensitive to meeting the food security needs of the future and the environmental security needs of the future.

The Trade Off with Agriculture

We have to figure out how to make this tradeoff between growing food and having a healthy environment work better.

12 The Balancing Act

Right now, it’s kind of an all-or-nothing proposition. In the background [of the photo] that’s a soybean field. The flower diagram shows we grow a lot of food, but we don’t have a lot clean water, we’re not storing a lot of carbon, we don’t have a lot of biodiversity. In the foreground, we have this prairie that’s wonderful from the environmental side, but you can’t eat anything.

We need to figure out how to bring both of those together into a new kind of agriculture.

A New Kind of Agriculture

People often tell me, “Well, isn’t ____ the answer?” — organic food, local food, GMOs, new trade subsidies, new farm bills — and yeah, we have a lot of good ideas here, but not any one of these is a silver bullet. In fact, what I think they are more like silver buckshots. [Only when] you put them together [do] you have something really powerful.

So what we have to do, I think, is invent a new kind of agriculture that blends the best ideas of commercial agriculture and the green revolution with the best ideas of organic farming and local food and the best ideas of environmental conservation. Not to have them fighting each other but to have them collaborating together to form a new kind of agriculture, something I call “terraculture,” or farming for a whole planet.

[Terraculture is not explained any further than this in the talk though. If you are interested in specifics about new ways of farming, check out this talk by Dr. Dickson Despommier.]

We’ve been trying very hard to bring these key points to people to reduce the controversy, to increase the collaboration. I want to show you a short video that does kind of show our efforts right now to bring these sides together into a single conversation.

Notes from video (basically, a summary of the entire TED talk):

  • The world population is growing by 75 million people each year. That’s almost the size of Germany. At this rate, we’ll reach 9 billion people by 2040. And we all need food.
  • How do we feed a growing world without destroying the planet?
  • We already know climate change is a big problem. But it’s not the only problem. We need to face ‘the other inconvenient truth.’ A global crisis in agriculture.
  • Population growth + meat consumption + dairy consumption + energy costs + bioenergy production = stress on natural resources.
  • More than 40% of Earth’s land has been cleared for agriculture. Global croplands cover 16 million km². That’s almost the size of South America. Global pastures cover 30 million km². That’s the size of Africa.
  • Agriculture uses 60 times more land than urban and suburban areas combined.
  • Irrigation is the biggest use of water on the planet. We use 2,800 cubic kilometers of water on crops every year. That’s enough to fill 7,305 Empire State Buildings every day.
  • Many large rivers have reduced flows. Some dried up altogether. Look at the Aral Sea, now turned to desert. Or the Colorado River, which no longer flows to the ocean.
  • Fertilizers have more than doubled the phosphorus and nitrogen in the environment. The consequence? Widespread water pollution and massive degradation of lakes and rivers.
  • Agriculture is the biggest contributor to climate change. It generates 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than the emissions from all electricity and industry, or from all the world’s planes, trains and automobiles. Most agricultural emissions come from tropical deforestation, methane from animals and rice fields, and nitrous oxide from over-fertilizing.
  • There is nothing we do that transforms the world more than agriculture. And there’s nothing we do that is more crucial to our survival.
  • Here’s the dilemma… As the world grows by several billion more people, we’ll need to double, maybe even triple, global food production. So where do we go from here?
  • We need to invest in real solutions: incentives for farmers, precision agriculture, new crop varieties, drip irrigation, gray water recycling, better tillage practices, smarter diets.
  • We need everyone at the table. Advocates of commercial agriculture, environmental conservation, and organic farming… must work together. There is no single solution.
  • We need collaboration, imagination, determination, because failure is not an option.

We face one of the greatest grand challenges in all of human history today: the need to feed nine billion people and do so sustainably and equitably and justly, at the same time protecting our planet for this and future generations. This is going to be one of the hardest things we ever have done in human history, and we absolutely have to get it right.

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