The other inconvenient truth

March 5, 2014

Johnathan Foley is director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. He recently received a Heinz Award, which is given annually to people who improve the human condition and environment through work in areas ranging from poverty alleviation to the arts and sciences. The award citation for Foley begins as follows:

A scientist on the leading edge of understanding global ecosystems and the study of complex environmental systems, Jonathan Foley, Ph.D., has dedicated his career to examining and finding solutions for the challenge of feeding an ever-growing population while at the same time protecting our planet for this and future generations.

In the TEDx shown below, Foley does an excellent job of exposing the environmental impacts of modern agriculture and how those impacts are expected to increase as the global population swells to over 9 billion by 2050. Ominously, Foley mentions that with rising population and increasing wealth in the developing world, global agricultural production will at least have to double within this century. But as it is currently practiced, that is simply not possible without bringing about an environmental catastrophe. So Foley convincingly shows that current agricultural methods are unsustainable and that its environmental impacts rival those of climate change. And the two problems are, of course, very much connected.

However, towards the end of his lecture Foley turns to talk about the possibilities for reforming modern agriculture and the need to do so if we are to feed an expanding population of over 9 billion.  He says that we have to do this in a way that will meet both the food needs and the environmental needs of the 21st century. His solution is a hodgepodge of a bunch of not-so-new ideas like organic farming, local foods, and the “best ideas” of commercial agriculture, like GMOs. He calls the combination of these ideas “Terraculture.”

What is disappointing about this talk is what Foley overlooks or neglects, such as the practice of “permaculture,” which was first developed by Bill Mollison back in the 1970s and is currently implemented on a small scale in many places around the world. Permaculture is a clear and living example of sustainable agriculture, but it is much more than that. Along with the permaculture revolution come changes, not only to farming and eating, but to architecture, planning, education and, more generally, lifestyle. Unlike Foley’s Terraculture idea, permaculture is about changing much more than agriculture.

Foley concludes his lecture by saying that one of the greatest challenges of our time is the need to feed 9 billion people sustainably, equitably, and justly, and to do so in a way that will protect the environment for our generation and generations to come. He insists that we have to get it right and have to get it right on our first attempt. It may be naive to think this challenge can be met at all, but it is almost certainly naive to think it can be met without significant lifestyle changes in both the developed and the developing world, where huge populations with increasing wealth are beginning to mimic the unsustainable lifestyles of the developed countries.

The following is an excellent, but dated, introduction to Bill Mollison and permaculture.

And here is a short video of someone who redesigned his own organic orchard along permaculture lines with spectacular results.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Democracy Now