How do you solve a problem like agriculture?

Forty percent of the Earth's surface is devoted to agriculture. The Colorado River, tapped for irrigation, no longer flows into the ocean. Agriculture also makes up 30% of all human-created greenhouse gas emissions—more than electricity, more than transportation.

Agriculture matters. And it's not an option, but a necessity.

In this talk for TEDxTwinCities, University of Minnesota scientist Jon Foley talks about the challenges facing the future of food. How do we produce more food without consuming more land, water, and fossil fuels? The only solution, according to Foley, is a combination of things. Not just "go organic". Instead, he's advocating combining some organic practices with industrial efficiency, changed diets, new varieties of food crops, and more.

Video Link


  1. One word “Permaculture”. I Saw this talk a week ago and have to ask the question why did he have to come up with a new word because It seems obvious that he at least has heard about permaculture.

    1. Permaculture is unlikely to solve the problem.  As the talk shows, an enormous amount of land is currently under cultivation.  Permacultural practices have much lower yields per acre therefore even more acreage would need to be brought into production.  Now that doesn’t mean that permaculture doesn’t have a role to play, but it’s not a silver bullet.

      1. None of what you said is true. 
        “My yields were often 8 times what the USDA claims are possible per square foot.”
        We could return the desert to cultivatable land if we had to.
        Your supposition is that we need more land and that is faulty for most areas. permaculture’s purpose is to create more forests not destroy the remaining ones. We just need to Get rid of lawns and create commons through Transition network movements..  Banana Circles, Eastern Agricultural Complex  and so on have crop yields while the current farming practices don’t. google EROEI

        1. I’m glad I had my trusty tinfoil hat handy for that link.

          But seriously, let’s see the data possibly in a peer reviewed journal. Let everyone see your methodology and how you arrived at the 8x claim with which crops and which climactic conditions. Was it an average of 8x or was it just a bumper single crop one time? There are way too many questions being bgged by a claim from someone trying to drum up “certification” business for me to take at face value.

          1. There is a problem with parity here you made the matter of factly statement that “…have much lower yields per acre.” now you are asking me to present a PRP but before I respond to that I have to ask “where are YOUR Peer Reviewed papers on the subject?” this will be my last responce. If you have any more questions take it to the forum. needs 800 dollars in pledges in 10 hours to bypass penalization. It is for those that want to teach themselves permaculture for free.

          2. you may think permaculture is “tinfoil” territory, but the carbon cycle most certainly is not. Our current agricultural practices do their best to ignore it. Permaculture is a discipline that seeks to participate and actively encourage local cycling of carbon and the build-up of soils. It may, as you suggest. produce slightly less per acre than fertilized, mechanical, intensive agriculture, but it’s energy inputs and and toxic outputs are significantly less (almost non-existant.) 
            It’s true that Permaculture has not been adequately studied. It has not had very good uptake amongst mainstream agri-science, but that must surely be due to large involvement with technocratic agri-business. That’s not a conspiracy theory, just go find out who funds your nearest university agriculture research center.

  2. The answers to our problems can be found in the oceans.  Nutritious Kelp and Krill provide our wholesome Red and Yellow rations.  Our upcoming Green product will alleviate all nutrition and hunger problems throughout the world!  Thank you for choosing Soylent Corporation for all of your nutrition needs.

    1. “Fish, and plankton. And sea greens, and protein from the sea. It’s all here, ready. Fresh as harvest day!”

      Ocean harvesting.  Carousel.  Problem solved.


  3.  “How do you solve a problem like human overpopulation?”

    There, fixed it for you.

    Until that problem is solved everything we do will ultimately fail.

        1. Yeah, all those brown people… good thing we don’t have to do anything like look ourselves in the mirror!

          1. Right, suggesting there is a overcrowing problem there is racist.  12 kids per family is a great path to continue on.  Carry on, nothing to see here.

            The growth rate in the US is nowhere close to this.

          2. Meanwhile ‘SomeGuyNamedMark’ the actual amount of resources used by the average American is about 3* times that of the average African.

            Additionally as pointed out by plenty of other commentators its very common for developing nations to have population booms while quality of life starts to improve. Then they start to plateau.
            It’s exactly what is currently happening in China and India, it’s exactly what happened in the US and lots of Europe during the industrial revolution. It’s a regular part of development. As death rates slow, it takes a while for people to adjust and have less babies, birth control, etc aren’t widely available and a attitudes to birth control take time to change.

            *Very rough estimate, take with salt.

    1. As you’re the first person to bring up the “the problem is people like breeding” quip that inevitably comes up with conversation about seemingly any problem these days I simply ask: What is your solution? 
      End medicine? Kill the crippled? Let Africa starve?

      Populations tend to grow for a while, then they slow down and either plateau or reverse. Various estimates have been made at when the global population will plateau, it’s likely to be somewhere between the 8.5-10.5billion mark.

  4. Forty percent of the Earth’s surface is devoted to agriculture.

    That would mean well over a quarter of all agriculture takes place under the sea. Impressive.

  5. On the home front, maybe we should get a Federal regulation to prohibit homeowner’s associations from mandating green grass.  I know a good bit of the water from the Colorado River goes to making grass green in places where it wouldn’t otherwise grow.  The Feds prevented HOAs from regulating small satellite dishes, why not yards?  And I’m not saying people should be forced to have dead grass, only that they shouldn’t be forced to keep it green.

  6. Typical human response to a problem – Deal with the symptoms (not enough room to grow all the food, not enough food to begin with, or some level of that issue) and ignore the root causes of the issue (too many people and too much wasted food (ethanol anyone?)).


    1. Claiming there are too many people while hypocritically continuing your own existence is clearly the way to go.

      1. Not having children is an option that, combined with the ever-present mortality rate, actually does its part to reduce population.

        1. and, unfortunately, guarantees that the future will be populated by the type of person that doesn’t believe in such things, or is too stupid to control themselves.

          The end result is that we will have a world full of Duggars.

  7. Why do i feel that we will be eating generics with various kinds of flavoring? Not exactly a meal in a pill but not far from it…

    1. Neat, and they’d be great in some urban agriculture environments; however I’m sure that system will solve all the water problems mentioned above.

  8. Once I hear that a specific idea is discussed at a TED conference, I almost always hate it immediately. There is something about the smug self-satisfied air of the audience and the public speakers that drives me away. Complex ideas are boiled down to clever soundbites. Its the hi-tech return of the snake oil salesman.

  9. While an informative presentation, i still have no idea what the speaker’s solution actually is..

    Further, there’s a more obvious culprit – assuming his numbers are from the UN FAO, citing 30% of all GHG emissions from agriculture is a bit misleading..he doesn’t point out that fully 18% is from livestock; nor that livestock consumes VASTLY more water than plants. Plant-based agriculture can sustain us humans just fine, and would free up massive amounts of land and resources (as seen by total land the size of Africa being used for animals – and it’s completely unnecessary).

    It’s not a popular message for most, but it’s a reality that needs to be discussed more.

    1. There is only a single slide in the two-minute video at the end that mentions meat and dairy consumption, but this is crucial in a discussion of agriculture. The vast majority of agriculture goes towards maintaining livestock. If humanity could adhere to a vegan diet, it would go the majority of the way towards reducing the environmental impact of agriculture to a minimum. For some reason this remains an unpoopular solution in polite society, just like you can’t suggest that maybe people could stop driving their cars in the city.

  10. Maggie, thanks for posting this–I had NO idea there were TED events in the Twin Cities! I’m a SMM member and this is the first I’ve heard of any non-kid related lectures.

  11. So the solution to the problems of agriculture is to produce TED talks and snazzy videos?

    I’d hoped for a lot more; preferably by somebody who gives the impression of knowing how current agriculture/food distribution actually works.

  12. An excellent talk, unfortunately marred by the video presentation which was a ham handed way to end his talk.

    He doesn’t address the population problem. Even if you could feed 9 billion people, you’ve only delayed the inevitable if that population continues growing.

    1. See “demographic transition” – population explosion is the result of improving economic conditions for the population. First, infant mortality drops. This is a technological shift. Then, sometime later, the birth rate drops, as children require more investment and education to raise, and women gain access to birth control and more economic security; this is a cultural shift. The space in between, where the birth rate exceeds the death rate, is the population explosion. The quicker the society transitions economically, the more rapidly the middle class expands, the sooner the fertility rate will drop.

      The only place in the world where fertility rates are rising are in Africa, which is where the bulk of population growth is expected to happen in the next few decades. Ergo, if you really wish to stem the growth of the population, you should be working to promote the prosperity and growth of the African middle class.

  13. Bad Boing Boing. The 30% greenhouse gas claim has been largely been discredited as the report it’s based on didn’t do their sums properly. I expected better from you

    1. Please feel free to edit your post with a credible citation to back up your statement.

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