U researcher thinks current food system is ruining planet

(Article by: JOSEPHINE MARCOTTY, Star Tribune)

A study led by a University of Minnesota researcher and published online last Wednesday by the journal Nature provides a snapshot of the perilous state of the world’s food system — and how it has changed the face of the planet.

How do you feed 9 billion people without destroying the planet?

Transform the global food system in the next 40 years by using crops to feed people instead of fattening livestock and producing fuel; eliminate food waste; and overhaul the use of fertilizers like nitrogen that are polluting waters around the world.

Those are some of the conclusions in a study led by a University of Minnesota researcher published online by the journal Nature.

Though the problems described in the paper have been well documented, the study takes the unusual approach of suggesting solutions for all of them simultaneously.

“We wanted to address food and environmental problems,” said Jonathan Foley, the lead author. “Up until now they’ve been treated as separate.”

Unlike some academic research, the paper is getting national attention, and Foley has been making his case in meetings with food industry executives at corporations such as General Mills and Cargill, and international environmental and agricultural groups.

Our Take:

It’s a good story. If it were really true. But why let facts get in the way of a paper that will make a sensation and create a reputation in a world where few people understand agriculture, and therefore you can get away with a lot of fast and loose shots.

Let’s look at a real life story, instead. We know a Northfield farmer who ran the numbers and seriously considered raising wheat on his land–the crop that dominated Minnesota agriculture two generations ago.

He found that even after subtracting the starch from his corn to make the ethanol, the food value that remains–a high protein feed product called distillers grains–represented more protein than a wheat crop would yield. Food and energy produced by an acre, instead of just less food.

There is a reason corn is winning acres. But this attack goes further and posits the idea that we should derive our protein from food crops instead of the livestock industry. I’d like to see Mr. Foley give a hundred dollars to a shopper and see how they spend it. My guess–the shopping cart would head for the meat counter.

And what Prof. Foley does not address is the deleterious effect on our economy of shipping mountains of wealth to OPEC in order to run our vehicles. If we kept that money here it would be capital that puts people to work, and feeds people and increases our wealth instead of the wealth of other nations. Grain ethanol forms the foundation for an even larger biomass ethanol revolution–together they will keep a lot of economic activity happening here, which means more jobs, less hunger and homelessness for Americans.

Nitrogen fertilizer will not ruin the world. Nitrogen efficiency is the next big challenge that American farmers have set their sights on conquering, and our crop science companies are making strides alongside land grant university researchers developing best management practices that get nitrates to plants and not groundwater.

We do agree with the professor on one point. Bringing the productivity of all farm land in the world up to optimum levels is essential. Even American farmers have a little room for improvement. Put agronomic improvements next to yield performance improvements and experts believe American farmers can more than double their output on the same acreage with the same or fewer inputs.

If arable land in the Third World were corrected for pH, properly fertilized and had the benefit of 21st century technology and agronomic know-how geared to each specific region’s climate and growing conditions–we would see vast economic growth–a rising tide that lifts all boats, as President Kennedy once said. The opportunity for self-reliance and environmental preservation would spread to every country.



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