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Can We Feed the World Using Foley's Five Steps?

02 May 2014

ANALYSIS - National Geographic has launched a new series starting this month continuing through the end of the year that will focus on food and the challenge of feeding the global population of nine billion projected by 2050.

Using the National Geographic platform, author Jonathon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota, offers a five-step plan to feed the world.

Foley says the debate over how to address the global food challenge has become polarized, pitting conventional ag and global commerce against local food systems and organic farms. And the division is getting worse and more fierce.

“Those who favor conventional agriculture talk about how modern mechanization, irrigation, fertilizers, and improved genetics can increase yields to help meet demand. And they’re right,” Foley said.

“Meanwhile proponents of local and organic farms counter that the world’s small farmers could increase yields plenty—and help themselves out of poverty—by adopting techniques that improve fertility without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They’re right too.“

Both approaches offer badly needed solutions and neither one alone can get us there. He led a team of scientist who asked: How can the world double the availability of food while simultaneously cutting the environmental harm caused by agriculture? His team proposed the following five steps that could solve the world’s food dilemma.

Step One: Freeze Agriculture’s Footprint

We can no longer afford to increase food production through agricultural expansion. Trading tropical forest for farmland is one of the most destructive things we do to the environment. Most of the land cleared for agriculture in the tropics does not contribute much to the world’s food security but is instead used to produce cattle, soybeans for livestock, timber, and palm oil. Avoiding further deforestation must be a top priority.

Step Two: Grow More on Farms We’ve Got

We can be more efficient about where we grow, what we grow, and how we grow.

The world can now turn its attention to increasing yields on less productive farmlands—especially in Africa, Latin America, and eastern Europe—where there are “yield gaps” between current production levels and those possible with improved farming practices. Using high-tech, precision farming systems, as well as approaches borrowed from organic farming, we could boost yields in these places several times over.

Nearly all new food production in the next 25 years will have to come from existing agricultural land.
Only 55 percent of food-crop calories directly nourish people. Meat, dairy, and eggs from animals raised on feed supply another 4 percent.

Improving nutrient and water supplies where yields are lowest could result in a 58 percent increase in global food production.

Step Three: Use Resources More Efficiently

Commercial farming is finding innovative ways to better target the application of fertilizers and pesticides by using computerized tractors equipped with advanced sensors and GPS. Many growers apply customized blends of fertilizer tailored to their exact soil conditions, which helps minimize the runoff of chemicals into nearby waterways.

Organic farming can also greatly reduce the use of water and chemicals—by incorporating cover crops, mulches, and compost to improve soil quality, conserve water, and build up nutrients.

Step Four: Shift Diets

It would be far easier to feed nine billion people by 2050 if more of the crops we grew ended up in human stomachs. Today only 55 percent of the world’s crop calories feed people directly; the rest are fed to livestock (about 36 percent) or turned into biofuels and industrial products (roughly 9 percent).

Though many of us consume meat, dairy, and eggs from animals raised on feedlots, only a fraction of the calories in feed given to livestock make their way into the meat and milk that we consume.
Finding more efficient ways to grow meat and shifting to less meat-intensive diets—even just switching from grain-fed beef to meats like chicken, pork, or pasture-raised beef—could free up substantial amounts of food across the world.

Step Five: Reduce Waste

An estimated 25 percent of the world’s food calories and up to 50 percent of total food weight are lost or wasted before they can be consumed. In rich countries most of that waste occurs in homes, restaurants, or supermarkets. In poor countries food is often lost between the farmer and the market, due to unreliable storage and transportation.

Consumers in the developed world could reduce waste by taking such simple steps as serving smaller portions, eating leftovers, and encouraging cafeterias, restaurants, and supermarkets to develop waste-reducing measures. Of all of the options for boosting food availability, tackling waste would be one of the most effective.


Foley said, "Taken together, these five steps could more than double the world’s food supplies and dramatically cut the environmental impact of agriculture worldwide. But it won’t be easy. These solutions require a big shift in thinking. For most of our history we have been blinded by the overzealous imperative of more, more, more in agriculture—clearing more land, growing more crops, using more resources. We need to find a balance between producing more food and sustaining the planet for future generations."

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

Sarah Mikesell, Senior Editor

Sarah Mikesell, Senior Editor

Top image via Shutterstock

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