Jim Fleming: In this hour we're considering what life might be like for an average American 50 years from now. So far, that future self wakes up in a city, goes to work, if you have a job and now it's time for lunch. But the unpredictabilities of climate change and about 9 billion people living on the planet by 2050, what will we eat? Jonathan Foley heads the Global Landscape Initiative at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. He told me, forget about the future.
Jonathan Foley: Today, right now we have 3 major challenges facing the world food system. One is the challenge of what we call food security, which is just a fancy way of saying does everybody get enough to eat every day? And right now we have 7 billion people in the world, but sadly about a billion people don't have food security. They lack the income or the access or the infrastructure to get food every single day. That's not because we don't grow it. There's plenty of food being grown, it's just these folks don't have access to this, mainly because they're very poor or they live in places with bad institutions. And that's true many places in the world including a little bit of the United States. The second big challenge though, is the world's getting bigger. Population growth, we have 2 to 3 billion more people coming to the population in the next 50 to 60 years possibly. Also, though the world is getting richer. China alone will be adding about half a billion middle class consumers in the next 10 to 20 years. And with that we're seeing big changes in diet. Folks who are getting richer are looking to Europe and the U.S. and other places and saying, hey maybe I want to eat more meat, more fats, more sugar, more oils, things like that. So between the economic growth and the population growth we may be on a track of needing to about double the food availability in the world.
Fleming: It's hard to break these things apart, isn't it? You can't really talk about how much food we produce without also considering getting it from the place of production to the people who need it.
Foley: Well, that's absolutely true. I mean, it's really ironic that the world grows a considerable amount of food, but then you have to ask where does it go? We see a lot of the crops we grow are actually fed mainly to animals. If you drive across the Midwestern corn belt, you look at all that corn and all those soybeans, that isn't people food. It's mainly fed to animals and increasingly to make ethanol. So, we have to think not only about how much we grow, but what we're using it for and that's a pretty big opportunity around diets and biofuels and especially food waste. The world wastes about 40% it's estimated of all the calories grown in the world. We could do better than that.
Fleming: I guess that we've established pretty well that there are problems. Will we be able to feed the increase in the population?
Foley: Well, it's yes and no. It depends on how you try to do it. Right now we have a very, very pervasive kind of narrative out there that says, look the world's population's getting bigger, people are getting richer, we've got to double the world's food supply. And I would say yes, that's probably true, but then therefore we need to grow more stuff. And I'm thinking, well wait a minute, we waste 40% of all the food we grow in the world right now. A lot more people are eating more things like meat and dairy products which are not always very efficient. We're using more and more of our crops for biofuels, taking it away from the food system. So, maybe we could conserve some of the food we have now and use it better rather than just simply growing more.
Fleming: So how do we do that? Because the waste that you're talking about, the immediate reaction is you mean the cereal that I threw away when I didn't eat my whole bowl this morning.
Foley: Well, there are two ways to look at this. One is exactly throwing things away, it's just basically losses along the supply chain. So it's either between the farmer and the marketplace, which happens a lot in poor countries. The farmer grew the crop, but it never got to market because it spoiled or you know, couldn't be refrigerated or didn't get there on time and that's a double tragedy to lose food and the farmer loses the income. But in rich countries, we tend to throw away things post-consumer. It's in our refrigerators, our trash cans, our cafeterias, our dorms, our restaurants. And a lot of things can be done there, especially where there are large institutions.
Fleming: So who is going to shape the future of food? Is it the government with increased regulation? Is it simply a matter of educating consumers?
Foley: Well, there's a lot of interesting forces playing out in the food system right now. Right now we certainly have governments and their ability to regulate either how food is grown in agriculture, but mainly we do that through our farm bill. What we pay for and what we subsidize versus what we ignore and that's a wildly distorted system, I think. But also industry has a big role here too. Whether it's the folks who provide the inputs to farmers or how farmers get their crops to the food processors and that's pretty influenced by consumer opinion. The big foodie movement in the United States and around the world is changing people's attitudes around food quite a lot.
Fleming: Is it changing it in a good way? I guess I'm curious. There's this argument between industry and organic or locally grown food. Is that a positive thing? Is that making a difference to people's diet?
Foley: I think it is improving people's nutrition somewhat. I'm not sure it's having that big an effect on, let's say the global food system yet. For example, organic food is about, that's only about 1% or less of the global food system and GMOs, which people get all upset about and everything, well they're about maybe 10% of the world's food production. So 90% or 89% roughly is neither one. We tend to get very, very obsessed about kind of small things like, you know, whether something is grown within 50 miles of your house. It turns out it doesn't matter that much to the global climate or the environment or any of that. What's really important is to do things like, can we stop deforestation in the Amazon and Indonesia for example. Or is something certified organic or not, what's more important is it a good farm? Is it a farm that didn't pollute into its local water. Did it produce good, healthy food that people can eat? So how do we move beyond this labeling good and bad kind of thing to a more comprehensive, big picture view of agriculture.
Fleming: Let's pretend for a moment that these are situations that can be solved and that we are going to solve them. What do you think, what am I going to have for breakfast if I'm still alive 50 years from now?
Foley: Well, I think what we'll have to eat in 50 years from now, I mean who knows, but it will probably be not that different than what we have today in many ways. I think obviously we'll see more homogenization around the world, we'll see more people borrowing diets and cultures and food from each other and that's a good thing probably. But I'm actually pretty optimistic. I think we will make it, I think we'll be able to feed the growing world population. I think we're going to get better about food waste. We might see a lot more deployment of technology, like having robots traveling around farm fields, kind of measuring soil nutrition and water content and growth. Maybe we'll have more sensors and kind of a ubiquitous kind of web presence making sure as food travels around the world it isn't getting spoiled or we know exactly where it is. But I would argue that maybe we can be optimistic about this. With improvements in farming technology, not just genetics, but things like how we fertilize our soils, how we irrigate and it might be very low tech things, like using more manures and more drip irrigation and maybe borrowing from organic approaches and what we call agro-ecology. I think those things have a lot of promise.
Fleming: These are things that society needs to do. There are economic possibilities, there are political possibilities. What about individual possibilities? What can an ordinary consumer do to make sure that there will be good food and clean water for our kids and our grandkids.
Foley: Well, I think the biggest role we have as individuals isn't just in our pocketbooks. I mean, a lot of people want to buy the local and the organic and the farmers markets and all that and that's great. But I think a more powerful thing you do when you do that is you set examples for other people, especially your kids or your coworkers or your friends. Everybody can have a backyard little garden to grow salad in. That won't really make a dent in global food supplies, but it'll help teach people around you and yourself even, how the food system works, how we have to take care of our soils and our plants. I like to think of that as a gateway drug to getting people interested in food and being more healthy, more nutritious but also respecting a lot more what farmers do. We need to reconnect people to the food system and anything we can do to do that is probably a good thing to do at the individual level.
Fleming: Jonathan Foley heads the Global Landscape Initiative at the University of Minnesota.