Foreign Policy Blogs

Smart Farming

Smart Farming


I went to hear a most interesting talk the other night, centered on how we need to get much smarter, quick, about agriculture and what we eat.  Jonathan Foley, the Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, gave the broad outlines of our dilemma relative to climate change and natural resource degradation.  Then he zeroed in on the work that an international team of experts convened by IonE had been doing on feeding the seven billion of us.  They published their findings recently in Nature and Foley had an article at Scientific American on this as well.  (Unfortunately, both require either a subscription or a payment, but see the IonE press release for a cogent summary.)

In a nutshell, the team came up with five points:

  • Halt farmland expansion
  • Close yield gaps
  • Use inputs more strategically
  • Shift diets
  • Reduce waste

These address such big-ticket items on which the sustainability movement has been hard at work for years such as halting rainforest and grassland destruction, reducing water and chemical inputs to agriculture, improving the ability of smallholders to maximize their yields and profits, reducing food waste, and my vote for the most important tack for us to take as a species:  shifting our diet from a meat-centered one to plant-centered.  In other words, we need to devote agricultural production to crops for people, not for animals, and radically reduce our intake of meat.  Francis Moore Lappé said this 40 years ago in Diet for a Small Planet.  At the same time, we need to also wean ourselves from a newer addiction:  food crops being converted to liquid fuel.

If you are at all aware of my views, you know that I think that meat consumption is one of the most wasteful, unhealthy, and environmentally unsound practices we’ve got going.  I have written about meat, biofuels, and how climate is effecting food production any number of times including at Why Not Meat?, Changing Climate Driving Food Shortages, and Glorious Food.  (For much more on food security, see the sister blog to this one at Global Food Security.)

One of the really brilliant ideas that the IonE report supports is to create a LEED-type system for food, rating the food we eat for nutritional value, carbon footprint and a range of other parameters.  The US Green Building Council has helped foster a revolution with their Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings and I think a similar system for food would have a tremendous positive impact.

So, the very good folks at the Institute on the Environment have, among their other path-breaking work, established some really useful benchmarks for sustainable agriculture and food consumption.  It is an integrated program, smart, expertly informed and the payoffs could be potentially enormous:  better nutrition, improved livelihoods for farmers, significantly less pollution, reduced energy use, and a much smaller greenhouse gas footprint from agriculture.  Farming is responsible now for fully a third of our emissions when you count land use changes like deforestation.

Time to get smart.  In fact, as Jonathan Foley says:  “There is no time to lose.”



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change