By Cameron Scherer
When asked to identify the greatest threats to our 21st century lifestyle, most of us would likely choose war or economic crisis over farming. But according to Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, agriculture is in fact the “single most powerful force unleashed on this planet since the end of the Ice Age.”
The Aral Sea used to be a source of irrigation and fish. Today, as a result of intensive agriculture, only a fraction of its original volume remains. (Photo credit: http://www.mirutadelaseda.com/)
In an online video of his recent TED Talk “The Other Inconvenient Truth,” Foley speaks in depth about the havoc modern agriculture is wreaking on our global environment. He says the Earth is running out of available land for farming. Today, we devote 16 million square kilometers – an area the size of South America – to croplands, and 30 million square kilometers – an area the size of Africa – to pasture for livestock. Together, this acreage comprises 40 percent of Earth’s land surface, an area 60 times greater than urban and suburban land combined.
As agriculture expands into deserts and other arid climates, our global demand for crops is putting a huge strain on our fresh-water resources as well. Seventy percent of the water we consume goes towards agriculture. Looking at it a different way, we use enough water to fill 7,305 Empire State Buildings every day.
Foley points to the example of the Aral Sea drying up as a result of increased farming in Eastern Europe. As a result of such large-scale evaporation, several fish species have died out and toxic waste that had accumulated at the bottom of the sea has become airborne, posing a serious threat to public health.
Agriculture is also responsible for 30 percent of greenhouses gases, making it the single largest contributor to climate change – more than transportation or industry manufacturing.
Unfortunately, the environmental implications of modern agriculture are not going away any time soon. Between a global population growing by 75 million people per year, changing diets, and an oil crisis driving the market for biofuels, the demand for agricultural output is only increasing. It is increasing so fast that, Foley predicts, we will need to double global agricultural production in our lifetime.
Instead of finding new arable land to cultivate, he says, we need to farm the land that we have more sustainably. “There are opportunities to make this work,” he says. “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.”
According to Foley, we need to develop a new kind of agriculture that blends Green Revolution technologies, organic farming methods, and environmental conservation. He labels this type of agriculture “terraculture,” or “farming for the whole planet.” Solutions he proposes include, but are by no means limited to: new crop varieties, drip irrigation, greywater recycling, and smarter diets.
We have no other option, he says, but to rethink agriculture to feed the world “sustainably, equitably, and justly.”
What do you think we need to do to “farm for the whole planet”? Let us know in the comments section!
Cameron Scherer is a research intern for Nourishing the Planet.