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The world can feed itself without ruining the planet, study says

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I talked with Jon Foley – lead author of the study and director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute for the Environment, as well as a member of The Nature Conservancy’s Science Council advisory board – to find out what it would take to make these recommendations a reality.

Your study’s findings are very promising. But the money question is: How do we do this? Roughly 1 billion people don’t have enough food right now, so it’s clearly a difficult challenge.

JON FOLEY: In this paper we’re looking at, “What does the science say?” A lot of people talk about the issue of food, but don’t have much data or science to back up the claims. So we wanted to find out which ideas can actually solve the problem.

We found that there is no silver bullet – we need to incorporate the best of what we know now into solving the world’s food problems and protecting our natural resources.

Can we do it? We have to – it’s absolutely necessary. It’s up to us to decide what’s politically feasible. We can change how we govern, tax, ship, produce, etc. What we can’t change are the laws of physics.

The problem of feeding the world and not wrecking the planet is a huge challenge, and it’s going to shape a lot of the 21st century. Solving it will require huge cooperation, innovation, and hard work. What our study does is lay out the data.

One focus of the article is how much land is given over to meat and dairy production, especially for growing fodder crops for these animals. Are you recommending that everyone should be vegetarian?

No, we’re not saying that – and that’s not realistic. People are going to eat meat. But it matters how meat is produced.

Thirty-five percent of our agricultural lands go to producing animal feed, and cattle and dairy farming take up 3.38 billion hectares. Grain-fed beef is a huge drain on the planet – it takes 30 kilos of grain to produce 1 kilo of boneless beef. It’s just not efficient. We’re better off producing grass-fed beef or more chicken and pork, which requires far less grain feed. And we’re clearing rainforests to produce this meat! It’s not necessary.

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