Phone: 612-624-5551
24-hr number: 612-293-0831

Advanced Search

This is an archived story; this page is not actively maintained. Some or all of the links within or related to this story may no longer work.

For the latest University of Minnesota news, visit Discover.

University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Hope for a hungry planet

October 12, 2011

A farming landscape in China.

The research team's recommendations are very large-scale, says Jonathan Foley, "but they are the only possible paths to feed the world and combat the environmental problems of agriculture."

A four-fold strategy to combat world hunger and environmental degradation

By Deane Morrison

We all like to eat. But it's an expensive habit.

Agriculture has already consumed nearly 40 percent of the world's land (not counting Greenland or Antarctica), and still a billion people--one-seventh of the world's population--suffer chronic hunger.

With more than 2 billion more on the way by 2050, rising demands for biofuels and a meat-rich diet, and virtually no arable land left, our planet faces an unprecedented challenge, according to a University of Minnesota-led research team's analysis in the current issue of the journal Nature.

Drawing on all available data, the researchers put forth four core strategies that, taken together, would go a long way toward feeding today's population, meeting the growing demands for food coming from population growth and higher per-capita consumption, and halting the environmental degradation that has gone hand in hand with expanding agriculture.

"Addressing this triple challenge will be one of the most important tests humanity has ever faced," says Jonathan Foley, director of the University's Institute on the Environment and first author on the Nature paper. "And it is fair to say that how we face this test will determine the fate of our civilization.

"We have to grapple with the issues of agriculture and the environment. This is not optional."

The core four

No other human use of the Earth's land has had anywhere near the impact of agriculture. But reining in its human and environmental costs, while meeting a projected doubling of demand for agricultural products in the next 40 years, can be accomplished if the following steps are taken, the researchers conclude.

(1) Stop expanding agriculture, especially in the tropics. Clearing land for agriculture cripples its ability to store carbon, recycle nutrients, retain water, and support a diverse array of plants and animals. The analysis showed that the food production benefits of tropical deforestation are often limited, especially compared to the amount of environmental damage it causes.

(2) Close the world's yield gaps by increasing yields from underperforming landscapes. Many parts of Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe suffer from nutrient and water limitations that could be helped by better deployment of existing crop varieties, improved management, and continued improvements in crop genetics. The analysis shows that bringing yields of 16 important food and feed crops to within 95 percent of their potential could add up to a 58 percent increase in food production.

(3) Increase the efficiency of water, nutrient, and agricultural chemical usages. For example, many parts of China, northern India, Western Europe and the United States use too much of these resources. The practice of precision agriculture, in which resources are applied only in the places and amounts necessary, along with targeted policy and management in these regions, will help. Specific actions include cutting excessive fertilizer use, improving manure management, and capturing excess nutrients through recycling, wetland restoration, and other practices.

(4) Shift diets and reduce waste. The world's growing appetite for meat and dairy is the most significant driver of land use. Averaged across the globe, 35 percent of total crop production is for growing animal feed, the study shows. "It takes 30 pounds of grain to produce one pound of boneless beef," says Foley. "We're not saying people should stop eating meat, but we should think about dialing back animal feed and meat [as uses of agricultural land]."

As for waste, "We lose 30 to 40 percent of food on the planet in transit, in restaurants, by being thrown out of refrigerators, and other means," he says. "These are resources that could have been sold. Show me a business that can lose 30-40 percent of its operations and still be profitable. There must be win-win opportunities here."

Why it's doable

"Our recommendations are large-scale, and may seem daunting, but they are the only possible paths to feed the world and combat the environmental problems of agriculture," Foley says. "We cannot ignore them and say they aren't feasible. They have to be. A lot of our current agricultural practices are driven by policy, government subsidies, trade regulations, and consumer preference. These can change over time. 

"But we can't change basic laws of biology and physics because we think they're not politically feasible."

Across Minnesota, Foley notes several hopeful developments. For example, people are trying out organic farming techniques and local food systems, moving toward no-till or low-till agriculture, adding buffer strips to catch nutrients before they get into waterways, and managing manure and water runoff more carefully.

For many crops, especially grains, it's still conventional large-scale agriculture that feeds most of the world, he says. But that needn't be a problem.

"Too many times, there's a false battle between local and organic food and large-scale conventional agriculture. That's unfortunate," Foley says. "I think we need them both, and we need them to collaborate. We need intelligent hybrids."

The University's Institute on the Environment is working with business, government, and environmental leaders around the world to form new collaborations around these strategies.

"We try to be honest brokers in trying to find solutions together," Foley explains. He emphasizes no single strategy can solve all problems; rather, all the study's recommendations--and probably more--are needed to meet the food production and environmental challenges facing agriculture. Or, as he puts it:

"Think silver buckshot, not a silver bullet."

Institutions contributing to the study besides the University of Minnesota were McGill University, Montreal; Arizona State University; Stockholm University, Sweden; University of Bonn, Germany; the University of Wisconsin; and the University of California–Santa Barbara.

Published in 2011

Tags: College of Biological Sciences, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, Institute on Environment

Related Links

Jonathan Foley

Institute on the Environment

Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior

College of Biological Sciences

Department of Applied Economics

Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering

College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences