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community garden earth imageThe Move From Agriculture to Terraculture: How Can We Feed the Planet Without Destroying the Planet?

By Matthew Wheeland 
Published January 19, 2012 in

Jon Foley, former director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, believes making agriculture more productive and more sustainable is probably the single biggest environmental challenge of the 21st century.  He proposed the question, "How are we going to feed the world, and simultaneously deal with sustainability?"

Three big challenges that agriculture faces now, and five ways to overcome those challenges by 2050...

The Three Challenges:

  1. Meeting the needs of the world's population today. There are about 7 billion people in the world now, and about 1 billion of them are malnourished and don't necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. Ironically, Foley said, there are also about a billion people in the world who are overweight, which poses its own kind of challenges.

  2. Meeting the needs of the next two billion. Even with a billion people at risk of starvation every day, the numbers are only going to get worse, as the global population climbs to an estimated 9 billion by 2050. If we're struggling already to meet the food challenge, how will we scale it up rapidly, given that it's taken us 10,000 years to get to our current agricultural production and we have just 38 more years to double it. "I can tell you right now we are nowhere near being able to do that," Foley said.

  3. Doubling food production sustainably. Right now, agriculture is the world's largest environmental problem, Foley said, and it's only going to increase. Global food production currently uses about 40 percent of the world's land, 70 percent of its water, and is responsible for at least 35 percent -- and possibly 45 percent -- of the total greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. Given the level of carbon emissions that we need to reach by 2050 to stem the worst impacts of climate change, it can't be done without fundamentally changing agriculture.

"The real challenge, of course, is to do all of this simultaneously," Foley said, "and that's why this will probably be one of the hardest things we have to do in the 21st century."

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