Big and small questions about food

I’ve just returned from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions conference feeling optimistic about the potential to change the way we grow food, cook and eat. Maybe it’s the wine, the seafood, and the wonderful fruits and vegetables (fried artichokes!) from nearby California farms, but I don’t think so. More likely it’s the passion that food reformers bring to their work, and my sense that more people are coming to understand that that we need to get smarter about how our food is produced. Our food system is depleting the earth’s resources and making us sick, even as 1 billion people around the world go hungry. It’s got to change, and it can change–so long as we don’t get distracted by small questions about food and lose sight of the big ones.

Take the brouhaha over labeling food containing genetically-modified organisms. A national petition drive to get the FDA to require labels for GMOs has collected more than 1 million signatures, as well as a ballot initiative in California to require labels. What, exactly, will these campaigns accomplish? There’s a broad scientific consensus that GMOs are no worse (or better) for human health than crops developed using using traditional breeding methods.

Then there’s the discussion about “food miles” and eating local. The USDA promotes farmers’ markets and a Know Your Farmer program. Walmart is buying more local food. But to what end? Shipping food, even long distances, accounts for only a fraction of agriculture’s environmental footprint. And there’s nothing “green” about driving a truck with a few bushels of fruits and vegetables to a suburban farmer’s market 50 or 75 miles away.

Now, before you get annoyed with me, let’s stipulate that transparency is laudable, “local” tends to be fresher than “global” and browsing around a farmer’s markets is a pleasant way to pass time on a weekend morning. But the big question about food is this: How can agriculture meet the world’s growing need for food while doing less environmental harm? That was the topic of an excellent presentation in Monterey by Jonathan Foley, an ecology professor and the director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

Jon Foley

“We’re running out of everything,” Foley said. “Agriculture uses up a planet’s worth of land, a planet’s worth of water and agriculture is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. If you want to solve climate change you absolutely have to address agriculture and its emissions. It’s huge.”

Right now, farmers grow enough to feed the world’s 7 billion people. The reasons why so many don’t get enough to eat have more to do with poverty, waste and distribution than absolute shortages of food. But to feed a population that’s expected to grow to 9 or 10 billion by 2050 and, more importantly, to satisfy the demands of a growing middle class, food production will have to double, if current trends continue.

“We’ve got 2 billion more people coming to dinner,” Foley said. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that many card tables.” The bigger problem, he said, is that a few billion more people will become wealthier and–again, if today’s trends continue– they will want a diet with more meat. Says Foley: “They’re looking at the menu and saying, ‘I think I’ll have the filet mignon.’ ”

So what’s to be done? In his talk, and in a 2011 paper in Nature titled Solutions for a cultivated planet, Foley laid out these broad strategies to attack the problems of food security and environmental sustainability:

Stop deforestation: “This is the single most important thing we can do for the environment,” he said. Clearing tropical forests to grow soy or palm has major negative effects on biodiversity and GHG emissions and delivers only small food production benefits, he said.

Grow more food on less land: This doesn’t necessarily require breakthroughs in agricultural technology or productivity, though they would help. What’s needed is to bring the best available farming methods, whether organic or conventional, to places where yields are low. “Across Africa, there are huge opportunities to produce yield with agro-ecological methods or green revolution methods,” Foley said. Interestingly, Foley said GMOs are not improving yields, except in India for cotton. They’re “not feeding the world’s poor yet,” he said.

Deliver more food with less water and chemicals.  In Israel, farmers generate calories using one-tenth the water used on average by the world’s farmers. By contrast, farmers in India use 10 times as much water as the average farmer. Subsidized water in the US also leads to waste. “We have consumed the entire Colorado River,” Foley said. “It’s gone. One of America’s great rivers.” Similarly, some farmers use too much fertilizer, wasting energy and polluting water, and other don’t deploy enough nutrients.

Increase food delivery by reducing waste and changing diet. This means growing less corn for biofuels, throwing away less food and reducing our consumption of meat. In the Nature article, Foley and his colleagues write: “We can increase food availability (in terms of calories, protein and critical nutrients) by shifting crop production away from livestock feed, bioenergy crops and other non-food applications.” This where we all can make a difference by eating less meat.

What I like about Jon is the pragmatic way he thinks and talks about food.

So often the conversation about food is personal, emotional and ideological. That’s fine when it fuels the passion around food politics.

But solutions need to be driven by science, not ideology.

Here’s a TEDx talk by Jon:


  1. Stuart says

    Great and interesting work on food the past week.

    Regarding palm oil. It is my understanding that oil palm yields more oil per hectare than any other major oilseed crop. If this is true (perhaps I have incorrect information) why would other substitutes be more eco friendly?


    • Marc Gunther says

      Thanks, Stuart. I think you’re right about palm oil. What (I’m guessing) Jon Foley would say is that it’s fine to grow palm oil but don’t clear and burn tropical forests in Indonesia to do so because the negative effects on climate & biodiversity outweigh the benefits.

      An awful lot of food issues would be solved with a carbon price. That would be preferable to asking consumers, retailers or regulators to figure out what’s most “green.”

      • Stuart says


        I agree on your carbon pricing comment, but since this is not yet available, intentionally or not, the message is getting out that “Palm Oil is Bad”, and frequently it ends there.

        Here are the substitutes for palm oil;
        • Animal Fat
        • Butter
        • Olive Oil
        • Canola Oil
        • Coconut Oil
        • Cocoa Butter
        • Sunflower Oil
        • Rapeseed Oil

        So the message on palm oil being bad is prompting a cosmetic company to substitute cocoa butter for palm oil. Should a baker use animal fat or butter rather than palm oil?

        What responsibilities do organizations have to consider the overall impact of their message? If people substitute items for palm oil that are more damaging to the environment, whose fault is that?

        I just think we need to more careful when we focus on one specific items, and better consider the alternatives that will be used.


  2. says

    I have to disagree with enshrining science at the top of the solution pyramid for food security. How much food have scientists grown? How many crops have they planted? They are too disconnected with the realities of growing food that they feel that they can always make changes that are limited to the inputs they allow in their laboratories and controlled environments.

    The natural seeds that were originally created by the Creator have worked to sufficiently feed the world for thousands of years using only manual labor. Science keeps providing more of what is supposed to be improvements which provide a net benefit of continued employment and funding to those offering the benefit. Total accounting of the effects of their advancements require further fixes to counter the unaccounted effects of their alleged improvements.

    Scientists create miniature models of their projected benefits. Then they test them in a miniature model before releasing them into the biosphere. We probably remember Dr. Evil and his miniature model of a factory that made miniature models.

    So my question is, Where’s the food?

    • Cliff says

      Are you kidding? The “natural seeds” have not worked to sufficiently feed the world for thousands of years. They have resulted in constant famine throughout history!

      The recent green revolution, which resulted in a massive and unprecedented rise in agricultural productivity (in no small part from better seeds), has changed the world and prevented untold starvation and suffering.

  3. Ed Reid says

    “An awful lot of food issues would be solved with a carbon price.”

    Yes, a carbon price would make what are now cheaper foodstuffs more expensive, thus reducing overall food consumption through government-induced relative poverty. Sounds like a marvelous improvement in quality of life. (sarc off)

    • Sibley says


      The idea is that carbon pricing would make carbon-expensive foods cost more and carbon-inedpensive foods not cost more, or even cost less depending on how the system works (growers of those crops may get paid by selling carbon credits).

      Since we’re all going to pay economic costs for global warming anyway, this is a way to tie those costs to activities to reduce the total cost. Sarcastically claiming that all possible carbon pricing systems will increase poverty is not going to help us find a solution.

      • Ed Reid says


        A carbon pricing system which returned 100% of the revenue collected from the producers or consumers of “carbon-expensive foods” to the producers or consumers of “carbon-inexpensive foods” would not necessarily increase poverty. Unfortunately, I have long since ceased believing in fully-refunded taxes, as well as the Great Pumpkin and the Easter Bunny.

        I would be interested in an example of any tax imposed in the history of the US which was fully refunded, with appropriate references please.

        I remain unconvinced that the global warming which had been occurring until recently will result in net economic costs, though political actions could certainly impose such costs in its name.

  4. Jonathan Wilson says


    I have been a vegetarian most of my life and it is a decision with which I consistently struggle. From a sustainability perspective, my understanding is that it make more sense to have a vegetarian diet due to the massive amount of energy/time/resources needed to raise and support livestock. This being said, there is a persuasive argument for eating local/organic meat that is humanely treated, which thus supports a segment of the industry that is more sustainable than conventional beef/chicken/pork industries. It is unrealistic to think that vegetarian diets will become the norm, especially in emerging economies, which make me think that supporting companies that are making the effort towards sustainability, humane treatment, and low carbon impact, may in fact be the better more long term option.

    Could you way in on this?

    -Jonathan Wilson

    • Marc Gunther says

      I agree that it’s unlikely that vegetarian diets will become the norm. But I think it’s entirely possibly that lots of people can learn to eat less, but better, meat. This would make a difference.

      By the way, I’m reading a book by ultramarathon runner and vegan Scott Jurek called Eat and Run. Scott is a world-class ultrarunner, and he credits his vegan diet with some of his success.

      • Sibley says


        I too am vegetarian for these reasons, and I urge you to stick with it! Just because most people don’t rise to a right answer, doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t, especially given how fun and rewarding this one can be.

        Please note – grass fed cows emit 50% more methane (very potent GHG) than feed lot cattle (because their natural digestive process is being used, and it is more methane producing). That is only one among many points that lead me to think that there is no such thing as responsible beef eating. I think the same can be said for 90+% types of seafood choices.

        There may well be environmentally reasonable meat choices, but from what I’ve seen, they are not sustainable at scale (no way to have that many free range chickens). Maybe when we grow meat in a vat using solar power…


  5. says

    Part of Foley’s premise is that farmers grow enough today to feed the planet and that world hunger is more of a waste and distribution problem. This is understandable… especially the ‘waste’ part. Americans are very wasteful, and/or we are the ultimate consumer. We throw away plates of delicious table scrapes while our pets resentfully eat out of a can or bag.
    Each year American’s spend over $8-billion for dog food alone. The equivalent amount of rice and beans could provide the protein and carbohydrate requirement for the entire population of Somalia for years to come.
    Be that as it may, the distribution of food will always be an important and difficult consideration in planning to feed a growing global population.
    And you rightfully praised Foley for his “pragmatic” approach to the problem. But we could also praise Moses in his delivery of the Ten Commandments and God’s pragmatic approach to the way we should live our lives.
    Both, Foley’s four-point plan for food and God’s 10-point plan for life are sensible and solid as the rock that the latter was printed on. But both are merely guidelines for what we should do, with no consideration for human nature in our present human condition.
    In short, it’s only handfuls of people in countries that have a high degree of education and affluence that are pushing this noble agenda to feed those less fortunate. You don’t see many mass protests in Haiti with signs begging to “Save The Trees”, “Conserve Water” or “Eat Less Beef”!
    Today, there are about four billion people in the world that are consumed with more pressing matters, like putting something on the dinner table TONIGHT!

  6. says

    One of the things downstream users in food supply chains (private label grocers, food processors and major restaurant chains) can do to promote for efficient, effective use of agricultural inputs such as nutrients, water, and pesticides, is by sending clear signals to their growers about this interest, assessing how well the growers are doing, by some form of survey tool, and then using the results to drive education and incentive programs. See, for example, McDonalds’ assessing how well its potato growers are doing in implementing IPM methods. The results are here: One risk worth noting is potential survey fatigue if too many downstream users ask too many questions in multiple instruments, an issue common to sustainability surveys of all types.


  1. […] Big and small questions about food Marc Gunther Our food system is depleting the earth’s resources and making us sick, even as 1 billion people around the world go hungry. It’s got to change, and it can change–so long as we don’t get distracted by small questions about food and lose sight of the big ones.  […]

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