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

Author Jon Foley says feeding a growing world presents a huge challenge. But employing many strategies simultaneously can meet the problem.

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Ultimately, it’s not about either organic or conventional; it’s about using the best from all our options. Organic farming practices blended with conventional ones – when brought to large scales – could have big impacts.

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That goes for local food, too. What’s appealing about local food is that it’s grown in a competent manner, with more transparency – you know who grew it and where. Same with organic, it includes more scrutiny. But local food isn’t necessarily better for the planet on an environmental level, and it’s not practical for all the various food products we use.

The question is, could we take that same degree of competency and put it to work on the global food system? Let’s take the best from organic, local, and conventional farming practices and global trade and use all these tools.

What’s an ecologist like you doing looking at agriculture and food security issues anyway?

Agriculture is the biggest thing we do to the planet – it covers 38 percent of the planet’s land surface – and it’s the biggest thing we do for humanity. So it makes sense for ecologists to be looking at these issues.

I’m a climatologist as well, and I was originally looking at climate change issues in my research but noticed how agriculture has such a big impact on water, climate, and land use. And the role of agriculture was not being looked at enough – remarkably very little science has been done to figure out the role of agriculture in climate change.

And vice versa. Our understanding of the role that climate change plays on agriculture is still in the early stages. No doubt it will have an effect on crops – some people focus on temperature change, some focus on water. Personally, I think water will be the bigger issue.

It’s a big, messy, complicated problem.

Now that the study is out, what kinds of reactions are you hoping for?

So far the reception to our research has been mostly positive, because we’re laying the facts out on the table and saying, “This is the science,” rather than pointing fingers or advocating for certain changes.

I hope we’ll see more collaboration – we need everyone to work together on this problem, from big ag companies to organic farmers. It’s time to have a sensible, grown-up conversation about these issues.

The good news is: We can feed the world and not wreck the planet.

The bad news: It’s going to take a lot of work, and right now we’re not headed in the right direction. There’s no room for error, because the pressures on our natural system are tremendous.

Read the press release about this new study and watch Jon Foley’s 2011 TED Talk.

Editor’s note: The study’s findings and recommendations are not necessarily the positions of The Nature Conservancy.

This article originally appeared on Cool Green Science, a blog published by The Nature Conservancy.

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