Idealist? Maybe...

Earlier this week I posted a link to National Geographic article on Feeding 9 Billion People.
There were bits and pieces I thought were overly idealistic and therefore not practical, but the author, Jonathan Foley, in his 5-step plan, made a few good points
Step 1: Freeze agriculture’s footprint
Step 2: Grow more on farms we’ve got
Step 3: Use resources more efficiently
Step 4: Shift Diets
Step 5: Reduce Waste

With the exception of step 4, most of these ideas made me go “Well DUH!!” and “Well, you’re not looking at farmers in Nebraska then, because the folks I know are busting their butts to do exactly that.”
Okay so now that I’m done being defensive… never mind I’m still defensive. I'm very defensive of the people I know devote their lives and livelihoods to agriculture. So pardon me if I get a little heated.
But let’s break down some of his points -

Step 1:
“Trading tropical forest for farmland is one of the most destructive things we do to the environment, and it is rarely done to benefit the 850 million people in the world who are still hungry.”
Okay, good point. Let’s not chop down rainforests.
However – is there more to this “850 million hungry people” thing than production? What about people who live in countries where the economy is so bad they don’t actually have money to buy the food that is available? I did a report on Panama this past semester and learned that they don’t have an enforced minimum wage, which means that an individual can work his fingers to the bone and still not come home with enough money to feed his family. That doesn’t mean the food isn’t there.

“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.”

So… he’s saying that cattle, who then produce milk (cheese, butter and other dairy products) and beef (as well as other useful byproducts) don’t contribute in any way, shape, or form to food security?

dark= low production, light= high production
Step 2:
“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.”

Oh well now that sounds like something I could get behind. However, I have an issue with the way he says “organic farming”. Here’s why.
According to Entomologist Gwen Pearson, there's a constellation of terms that "travel together" with the word "organic," such as "chemical-free," and "natural."
“I'm less upset about the way that they are technically incorrect [though of course all] food is all organic, because it contains carbon, etc. [My concern is] the way they are used to dismiss and minimize real differences in food and product production.” She says.
“Things can be natural and "organic", but still quite dangerous. Things can be "synthetic" and manufactured, but safe. And sometimes better choices. If you are taking insulin, odds are it's from GMO bacteria. And it's saving lives.”
Organic farming isn’t bad, conventional farming isn’t bad. Stop trying to differentiate the two based on the language you use.

I'll reiterate that with this quote from Foley: "It doesn’t have to be factory farms versus small, organic ones. There is another way.”
Oh okay, that's cute. Except, WHAT THE **** IS FACTORY FARMING? Farms aren't housed in giant industrial buildings with chemical belching smokestacks and hundreds of automated assembly lines. Farms, no matter what size they are, are run by hardworking people that continually deal with Mother Nature and take great care in being stewards of the land. Stop using that term!!
*end rant*

Step 3:
“Commercial farming has started to make huge strides, 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.”

Ooh happy dance! Look at us improving! I’d offer a suggestion to both of the sentences by adding “practices” to the ends of commercial and organic farming. Again…let’s stop differentiating the two.

Step 4:
“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.”

Okay, I have a hard time believing that livestock are that inefficient. Besides, humans are omnivores. They need the nutrients provided by a meat diet, and vegetarians and vegans have to use synthesized versions. What was that big argument about “natural” that we just had?  

“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.”

Uhm… you know what they feed chickens? CORN! You know what they feed pigs? CORN! You know what they don’t eat? GRASS. You know what cows eat? GRASS.
Cattle utilize a resource that humans can’t. In Nebraska, 25% of our land mass is grassland (grassland that would simply be a desert of blowing sand without cattle on it). We couldn’t raise crops on that land, so to make efficient use of that resource, we have to produce beef on it.
I don’t think you’re phasing meat out of anybody’s diets anytime soon, just saying.

Step 5:
“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.”

As someone who’s worked in the food industry – “Can I get an AMEN!?” I’ve watched more people waste more food; and although boxing it up and sending it to Africa wouldn’t do anybody any good, I still want to bust their half-full plates over their swollen heads. 

His second point goes back to what I mentioned earlier about food availability not being a production problem. Corrupted governments and crumbling infrastructures can play a huge part in limiting food security.

The main thing I got from this is something that world leaders like Norman Borlaug have been saying for decades: ending world hunger is our moral responsibility. And we’re going to have to work together to accomplish that.

Draw your own conclusions and send me some feedback!

~Danger Out


  1. Amen Sister. I love this. A point I might add is this. In point 2, I think Foley misses an important point. We can't subject these developing countries to our production methods. We need to get them to an American farming in the 1950's standard of production. I'd love it if we could get them into precision farming but frankly that just isn't feasible right off the bat. Anyway, just some rants to go with yours.

  2. The neat thing about our planet is that is has different resources in different places. I've not done any "world-traveling" but in the research that I've done, I think it's fairly obvious that there are a lot of resources being underutilized and mismanaged. It really irks me when people point their fingers at American agriculture because honestly, we're the most productive and the most judicious with our resources. I think there's a lot of potential out there, and my goal in life is to contribute to helping people reach it!
    Thanks for your feedback!