Recently I re-watched a TED talk by professor Jonathan Foley about global agriculture. I found that in his talk Foley voiced a lot of my larger beliefs about farming, why it is important to examine, and how we can change it for the better. When I first watched the presentation I was thinking “Yes! These are my thoughts exactly!” I highly recommend the talk and you can check it out here.
I like this talk because it is practical and scientific. Foley starts out by framing the issue in a larger global context, showing how humans have come to dominate our planet. This large lens is fitting for such an important issue. I think it stresses the underlying truth about farming and environmental issues: all of this comes down to simple self-preservation. No matter what, we need food just as we need nature and all the creatures that make up our environment.
Foley has researched the global environmental effects of agriculture in depth. With this knowledge, he looks pragmatically to the future to see what questions arise and how we can answer them. He doesn’t get caught up in the sometimes myopic mindset of “local-organic-will-save-the-world.” It’s easy to go down that road when considering the problems with our current agricultural system, but Foley’s perspective is that of a professor and a scientist. He is going over the big important issues.
Foley uses stunning and shocking pictures to point out the long term effect of farming on our environment. According to Foley’s estimates, agriculture uses 40% of our land, 70% of our fresh water, and contributes to 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions. When I presented my senior project, I included similar figures to explain how important farming is to the future of our environment. As Foley points out, farming lies at the intersection of many environmental issues: energy, water, and land usage; climate change; biodiversity loss and habitat destruction; as well as air and water pollution.
Towards the end of the talk Foley gets to a really important point: there is no single simple answer to all these issues. Foley and I (and hopefully most people) are really in agreement here. This idea is central to my perspective on agriculture and I brought it up in the conclusion of my senior project presentation. Farming raises so may complex questions that there could not possibly be a single cure-all solution. I like the picture below quite a lot and I think it gets the idea across.
Though Foley’s proposition for a new type of agriculture that combines the best of many models is a bit vague, maybe that’s kind of the point. It’s all open-ended and we don’t know what it’s going to look like. As Foley says, we have to “reduce the controversy” and “increase the collaboration” in order to find out. His video provides some more concrete examples: economic incentives for farmers, new agricultural methods like drip irrigation and conservation tillage, as well as a smarter diet on the consumer’s side (this is where we non-farmers come in!). There are lots of things we can do and with this blog I hope to point out some of them.
My next post will cover a number of cool new agricultural methods and technologies that have the potential to help solve some of our current problems in farming. And after that I’ll try to write one that covers all the different actions we can take to make a real difference in these issues.