Supercommittees Won’t Feed the Planet


Okay, I am now officially sick of the cowardice and lack of imagination demonstrated by many academic agriculture experts. They purport to address the question of the day: How are we going to feed 7 billion and counting people without destroying the planet?  But they offer no answers, or only weak and partial answers.

Here is a prime example, the Tedx talk by Jonathan Foley of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota:

As you see, Foley does a nice job of characterizing the problem: Industrial agriculture is an ecological disaster…yet we have increasing numbers of mouths to feed.

His answer?  Organic and industrial farmers and Monsanto all need to talk about solutions.  

Seriously?  Let's form a committee?  Because that worked so well on deficit reduction!

A TED event is a great forum.  How could you not use it to float a pet notion or two of your own?  And an actual idea, not some vague "third way" compromise between various special interests.

One often gets the sense from such experts that they have no idea whereof they speak because they have never grown food in their lives.  Of course, this may not be true in Foley's case, since his university bio lists "gardening" among his hobbies.  Still, one imagines him out there with his Felcos dead-heading the ornamentals, not in the dirt yanking turnips out of the soil.

I do grow food.  I've got my TED talk ready:  

1. Change the scale at which agriculture takes place.  Small diverse gardens and farms can produce more food on less land than factory farms, and work in concert with nature, not against it.
2. Substitute human labor for planet-destroying artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery.
3. Listen to the real thinkers, who believe agriculture can be transformed by mimicking natural ecosystems. 
4. Mulch.






  1. I’m going to put it out there. We have plenty of food. We simply produce the wrong type of food and have an inefficient system of distribution. Half of our food is wasted. We could triple production and still fail at feeding more people.

  2. I think the answer won’t come in one sweeping idea, but lots of little things done on a grand scale by many people. I watch the amount of USDA food dumped by school children everyday because they “don’t like it”, and know we need to grow what we’ll eat. I also know that busy people can’t add something like labor intensive gardening or mini-farming to their day. We need to plant “messy” trees that bear fruit as street trees rather than sterile flowering trees, and have a plan for harvesting the fruit. We need to teach canning, drying, and other food preservation methods in our schools. We need to change zoning regulations to allow front yard victory gardens and chicken-keeping. And we need to understand what it costs to produce food sustainibly and learn to eat seasonally and healthfully.

  3. Hear, hear! Especially #4. I am doing the MG training and folks ask me all the time, what is my number one piece of advice for gardeners, and I always tell them: Mulch! Take care of the dirt and the dirt will take care of you and mulching is one of the best ways of taking care of dirt.

  4. Population control is a tired mantra. If you remember scientists and experts of all types told us that we would be cannibals by the 1980’s if draconian population controls weren’t in place by the 70’s. That hasn’t happened.

    There is plenty of space for people all around the world. There is plenty of room to garden and to produce more than enough food to feed the world. By itself central Africa could produce enough food to feed the entire world if they would step away from tribalism, stop fighting and just get down to business. The area around the Urals could feed the world. American farmers could feed the world. The point is that there is still plenty of room to grow both people and food.

    International and governmental programs will fail. I laugh whenever I think about the Soviet huge collectives being unable to feed Russia. Yet when Russians were authorized to sell food from their small personal plots, food markets blossomed and starvation was averted.

    Do you want to help save the world? Encourage your neighbor to garden and show them the ways that you use to make your garden grow with both good food and beautiful flowers.

  5. Big Ideas seldom work (dave’s referencing soviet collectives, for example)
    America produces in abundance, yet millions of our children go to bed hungry.
    Think small, think/buy local, and “teach a man to fish.” One small step by a man, one giant leap for self sufficiency. . .”

  6. I agree with all of the above – problem is getting masses of people to change the way they think about how they use their spare time (gardening? but I want to go to the mall or watch the game…).
    Too many people see the problem as something that will be solved by someone else or happen later and so not require their buy-in. Our culture may have become so passive because the problems are presented on such a large scale we’ve lost the perspective that each of us has a personal stake and responsibility in the solution.

  7. Hey there Pol Pot, you forgot to finish:

    5. Get people to pay 4x as much as they do now for food.

    All the modernizations you rail against (fertilizers, machinery, etc.) were adopted throughout the world because they increase efficiency, lower prices, and make more food more affordable for more people. What you advocate will immediately drive up prices.

    6. Remove ALL US farm subsidies.

    These are so huge and applied on such a massive scale that they distort food prices and accessibility around the world, not only in our hemisphere. Imagine the cleansing effect on our farming systems as industrial/corporate “farmers” (your bad guys) leave the business! Farmland prices plummet, giving younger idealists (your good guys) a fighting chance to prove their ideas work.

  8. Dear Dave,

    In response to your “tired mantra”/population-is-not-a-problem remark: Maybe you should think of it in this way: If you have a ten gallon aquarium, how many fish can live there? How many plants can thrive in your garden? (The earth itself is, after all, a closed system with finite resources.)

    How many people can the earth sustain at our current rate of consumption? (Answer: at our current rate, we are using the resources of 1 and a half planet earths).

    Education is key. The following site has a long list of primary scientific sources:

  9. Amen. I was going to blog about this lame talk but you beat me to it! All of your suggestions are spot on, of course they don’t fit into the format of a Ted talk, which gets at the heart of the problem. Ted, like our culture in general, favors reductionist, technological solutions where a more nuanced whole systems approach is more appropriate. Mimicking natural systems and finding our place in that system does not fit within the tight confines of a Ted talk or the business plans of Monsanto.

  10. Population is not a problem. Those who think that overpopulation is the end of the world fall into various traps that give the rest of us heart burn. For example, the Chinese often kill newborn girls because they are deemed less valuable. Now the Chinese have a huge problem with prostitution because there aren’t enough women to go around. Also the Chinese are concerned that there won’t be enough Chinese to keep China a nation in the future.

    Those who think that the world is overpopulated want endless wars to weed out the less desirable folks that just need to die. Those who think the world is overpopulated want pandemic diseases to help control the population.

    Our experts are wrong over and over and over. We were going to run out of food in the 80’s. Gas was to be gone in the 70s, 80s, 90s and now after 2015. Yet we still have food. We still have oil and we are finding even more huge deposits. In the 70s one expert wanted to put tires into the ocean to make an artificial reef. He talked other experts and federal agencies into supporting the scheme and for the tax money to deep six tires. After almost 30 years underwater there is nothing growing on them. Even a teenage boy who has been out fishing knows that coral and other sustaining life won’t grow on tires. To top it off the DoD was tasked to pick up all the tires and dispose of them. Why weren’t those experts held accountable?

    In Hong Kong I saw a WWF TV commercial that listed the number of species going extinct each day. I pulled out my calculator and figured out that the world would be devoid of all life in about 2 months if WWF was correct. They weren’t.

    In my work, I travel the world and it is pretty obvious that the planet is not going to fall apart anytime in the next millennium.

    If you want to help your neighbors get into gardening give them some fresh veggies or cut flowers. Help them out when they get started by offering to dig their garden or helping plant it. Show them how much fun gardening is and how it helps us all. Help them grow heirloom plants and to enjoy the fruits that aren’t in the supermarkets.

  11. It would be nice to stay in a Holiday Inn and to be sooooo smart, but that isn’t the case. I am just tired of people who didn’t pay attention during math, science or physics fawning over experts who are proven incorrect time and time and time again. I am tired of people watching the news and not questioning the obvious errors. For example, when Clinton sent a surprise attack of missiles into Africa and Afghanistan I was in the UAE. 14 hours before the missiles were fired, there were armed UAE soldiers guarding my hotel floor. Not much of a surprise attack.

    Where I visited in Kyrgyzstan there are backyard gardens in almost every middle class yard. Some yards were all garden. In Japan and Korea there are commercial and private hoop houses and row covers in abundance. In most of Africa, tomatoes and summer vegetables are an immediate cash crop and those grown successfully are highly prized. That is if they aren’t stolen first. In Singapore one company using about 1 1/2 acres harvests 600-700 kilos of marketable lettuce every day.

    My first point is that there is plenty of room for people to live, work and grow their food.

    My second point is that to really help, get someone else interested in gardening. My town isn’t really a gardening town. Several years ago I planted 10 feet of lavender along my street front property. Lavender is easy to grow, doesn’t take much maintenance and puts on a great display throughout the summer. In just a few years there were other lavender beds around town. Help a friend, a neighbor, a local school start a garden.

    Pure brag: Squash soup made from squash grown in my garden tastes infinitely better than when made from supermarket squash. Also the markets here don’t carry Australian Butternut squash or other fun foods.

  12. Quantity : do we the Western people need to eat as much as we do ? Cut down quantities of food we put on our plates, be in adequation with our individual activities, not a drastic solution for feeding the planet.
    Shop for food more often, buy small quantities, say what you will eat in the next two days for certain, that’s what I try and do and hope to limit my ecological footprint.

  13. I have a concern here item 2

    Given, with peak oil we will no longer have access to artificial fertilizers, pesticides or machinery, without a change to the way society is structured surely any retun to the land will be some kind of neo feudalism with the 99% working on the land of the 1% and receiving none of the benefits.

  14. I’m always excited when Garden Rant takes on Big Issues, such as world hunger and overpopulation, because I know it will often start a lively debate and sometimes there will be a well-spoken naysayer and sometimes I learn about nuances (it seems like all the Big Issues are mired in nuances). So Dave is today’s naysayer and he’s plenty lively. And I hoped to get an alternative view from him, but unfortunately I don’t see anything but anecdotal reporting (“Where I visited in Kyrgyzstan there are backyard gardens in almost every middle class yard”) and huge problems addressed with oversimplifications (“central Africa could produce enough food to feed the entire world if they would step away from tribalism, stop fighting and just get down to business”.) I’d really like to hear some high-quality debating on this issue but somehow I don’t think Dave’s attempts are doing it for me. But he gets points for trying.

  15. Pam, how’s this for a lively debate topic: 80 percent of all agricultural land is used for livestock. 30 percent of earth’s landmass is used for livestock. Livestock consume more protein than they produce. Livestock are responsible for more than half of the greenhouse gases.

    Cutting back livestock production by even half will free up land to grow enormous quantities of food for people (triplling the acreage now used to grow food for people), reduce global warming, reduce the rate of extinction (since no more wildlands will need to be burned to accommodate ever-expanding livestock production), and be healthier for humans as well.

    For more info, see the book Comfortably Unaware by Richard Oppenlander.

  16. Since this is a garden blog and not a political one I did not want to stray from tilling the soil. These are huge topics and can’t be mowed down in one day.

    Point 2. If used properly most fertilizers don’t damage the earth. American farmers, as well as most of the rest of the world’s farmers, don’t use the fertilizers as prescribed and the result is depleted soil. Monsanto tried to market their GMO products which use special fertilizers in Latin America, Africa and India. In all three areas there were huge losses of both the Monsanto crop and adjacent crops. Monsanto explained that the chemicals had to be mixed exactly rather than almost exactly and that they had to be dispensed at the specified interval and not when the farmer wanted to put the chemical on. This summer in India a Monsanto cotton crop failed and the Monsanto representative tried to blame the problems on the Indian farmers. An Indian farmer beat him up for the crop failures and for not paying for the crop loss.

    The point is that chemicals aren’t all evil but must be used properly or there will be problems.

    Substituting human labor for machines isn’t a practical solution in developed countries unless you want to double or triple the cost of your food. In Washington state, the illegal pickers were chased off by ICE and the Washington Apple Grower’s Association asked students, housewives and anyone else who wanted to make some money to pick. The strike price was just above Washington state’s minimum wage. The turn out was poor. It wasn’t until the offered wage went above twice the minimum wage that people started working.

    In Colorado, ICE scared off illegal workers from farms and orchards. The Colorado farm associations went to the Colorado Legislature and requested special legislation to allow Colorado prison inmates to work on the farms at about $10 an hour. In their official briefs the farmers all said that using convicts was more expensive than illegal workers but less expensive than hiring good citizens to work at the price they required.

    At home, none of my friends have volunteered to dig my hillside terraces and I have to pay well over minimum wage to have young men move dirt for me.

    The point — the only place that using labor to replace machines is practical is in developing countries where any work means a meal at the end of the day or in Communist countries where it is plant rice or be shot.

    Pam, I hope this is specific enough for you. I’m not a naysayer; I just been sold too many bottles of snake oil.

    Help a friend start gardening. Help them plant some spring bulbs.

  17. It’s true that cutting back consumption of meat could change the dynamics of food production, but it’s not as simple as turning all rangeland into cropland. Livestock is often raised on land that is unsuitable for growing crops (too cold, steep, dry, short-season, etc).

    In fact, part of the reason over-population is a problem is that you can’t just fill any space on the planet with humans and expect them to be able to grow food there; there has to be enough water, sunlight, arable soil, and a climate that supports food-growing (here’s a “thought-problem”: Should suburbanites in southern CA, basically a desert region where water is imported from far away, be encouraged to use more water to grow food? Think about it). In America, we have an unrealistic view about where humans can live, because of the fact that water is pumped (at enormous cost) into areas that don’t naturally have water resources (the Imperial Valley, for example).

    I grow food for a living (non-subsidized tree fruit and winegrapes), and here are some other thoughts I have:

    The “locally-grown” movement is so important. Our distribution networks are extremely wasteful and need to be re-vamped. The consumer is most powerful here. Put your money where your mouth is, if you truly want change.

    The “grow-your-own” movement is important too. Right now, less than 2% of the population are farmers who know what it takes to grow food in quantity, and the average age of farmers in the US is 57. Who will grow our food 30 years from now? Anything that encourages interest in growing and producing food now will hopefully inspire young people to follow in our footsteps later.

    Climate change is going to be an increasing influence on food production–ask farmers across the US how this past year affected their crops. Of course even in “normal” times you can have weather-related issues and disasters, but things are changing fast. Consumers are somewhat insulated by a global economy–we can import food if our own crops fail, to a certain extent–but that may change in the next couple of decades. Ask yourself the next time all of your tomatoes are blighted where you would get tomatoes if you couldn’t trade with your neighbors or get them at the store.

    Food costs a lot and takes time to grow; people in the US don’t want to pay that much or take the time, and many people elsewhere in the world can’t pay that much. Labor is costly, even in a feudal system (you still have to feed and house people).

    Underneath these things is the fact that right now there isn’t the political or social will to make drastic changes in our food production and supply without great upheaval. I’m a great believer in people taking matters into their own hands where they can, but that will only go so far.

    Sorry this is so long and rambling, but you hit a nerve!

  18. I forgot to add one more thing (forgive me!): Farming (and gardening!) are physically-demanding tasks; I’m not sure a lot of our population is up to the challenge physically. Many young people who have worked for me on the farm got tired way too fast, and quit before the harvest was done because they didn’t want to, or couldn’t, work that hard. I used to think P.E. was a waste of time in school, but I don’t think that anymore.

  19. Firstly we all eat too much, secondly we should all grow some things ourselves (every little helps) and thirdly we should all cut down on eating meat particularly cows which are totally uneconomic in terms of the output per m2. If all the areas given to livestock was used for arable land we would have huge surpluses the world over.

  20. “Substitute human labor for planet-destroying artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery.” Ha, ha — tell that to a Chinese or Indian subsistence farmer who’s longing for a better way of life and a route of dire poverty.

    I couldn’t wait to get off the farm myself, where we kids were the human labor. Hobby gardening ain’t gonna feed the world.

  21. Michelle, it took me a while to get back to the computer.

    Point 3: Listen to the real thinkers is a good thing to do, but you have to know what type of glasses the thinkers are wearing.

    From the article about Jerry Glover . . .”The process involves meticulous genetic detective work, breeding and crossbreeding seeds to select characteristics that will ultimately make a top crop.” Well that sounds like what Monsanto, most universities and government programs are trying to do. Where is the line drawn before the genetic engineering is too much?

    I live in a small farming community between a college and two state universities. The eggheads have all sorts of ideas for growing better but they don’t work except on extremely small scale or they need genetic engineered crops to succeed. Joel Salatin has practical ideas that work but the cost of food production is higher than larger farms. Joel upsets the conventional apple cart and is well worth listening to.

    The point here is you have to be careful to whom you listen to because so many good ideas are scams. We see those scams in several of the failed green businesses in today’s news.

    Another example is a project funded by tax dollars to increase the sharing of knowledge between the two nearby universities. So far it successfully spawned one business run by a local man who was already in business. The overall impact on our economy is negative (tax dollars in minus everything going out). The sponsors are essentially governmental agencies using our tax dollars to get money from the federal government or other universities. Good idea with a bad result.

    There are many voices in this debate and the ones with practical experience whose ideas work are often drowned out by the big wigs.

    Parts of the earth are inhospitable to humans and to gardening but you can still grow food and flowers there if you are willing to expend the energy. Hydroponics and related endeavors produce wonderful crops but must rely on chemical solutions to feed the plants. But most people are not going to invest in hydroponics because of the initial set up cost. For years magazines have touted the high rise farm with hydroponics and animals all working together to make our food. Well right now it is too expensive to implement.

    Encourage your friends to garden.

    Have you ever wondered why the Bible called the Garden of Edan a garden rather than the Farm of Edan?

  22. anne, it’s not about turning rangeland into cropland. It’s about growing food for people, not for livestock.

    Right now, 90% of soybeans, 95% of oats, and 80% of the corn grown in the US goes to feed livestock. These crops are grown on cropland, many of them are subsidized, grown with gmo seeds and pesticides, etc.

    It’s a massive waste of resources. Look at the transportation alone:

    crops grown for livestock are hauled to feedlots
    livestock are hauled to feedlots
    livestock are hauled to slaughterhouses
    then to processing facilities
    then to packaging/market

    crops grown for people are hauled to packaging/market

  23. Jemma, sorry, it was your comment about freeing up “cropland”, as opposed to freeing up crops, that threw me. I do understand how eating less meat can help.

  24. The above comment (by ‘cotton sifter pads’) is of course an ad come-on, but the human who created it merely copied and pasted the exact words used by jemma (a real person I’m guessing) in an earlier comment. I hate to see my name used in this endeavor, but I guess in the Wild World of the World Wide Web we have to put up with shameless (and lazy!) marketing. Is capitalism a force for good or ill on this planet? Although I enjoy many of the fruits of capitalism, I fear it’s the former. And back to the original point of this post (I think), I fear that humans won’t solve the problem of global hunger/starvation by relying on “the open market.”

  25. Lest I be viewed as a total crackpot, please ignore my comment above, posted (it says) at 9:46 AM today. The offensive comment that I was referring to has been removed. I am NOT directing my remarks to “anne.”

  26. “Okay, I am now officially sick of the cowardice and lack of imagination demonstrated by many academic agriculture experts. They purport to address the question of the day: How are we going to feed 7 billion and counting people without destroying the planet? But they offer no answers, or only weak and partial answers.”

    It takes 11 acres or enough land to grow a years supply of food to feed 7 people to produce enough etahnol to power an average car for one year. To supply the 10% mandated in gasoline it uses up 1.1 acres of crop land for each car on the road. This would be food for 7 tenths of a person per car. With 125 million cars on the road in the US this means that today enough crop land to feed 87.5 million people is used to grow corn for ethanol.

    Ethanol / biofuel pollutes more than gasoline. It uses more energy that it displaces. It costs $5 billion a year in subsidies. It will cost 200,000 deaths of the world’s poorest people wordwide according to the World Health Organization. It is responsible for huge food price increases.

    Nothing could impact food production more positively, reduce food prices, feed the world and save lives more effectively than eliminating ethanol subsidies and forced use. Support by Republicans, Democrats and especially the president for the use of ethanol is inexcusable.

    Thats my suggestion. I don’t think it could be considered weak and it is a far more substantial answer than any other suggestion I have seen.

  27. ….and if it were not for the Monsantos of the world and hybridization of corn, wheat and other crops 25% of the world would be starving to death.

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