The Other Inconvenient Truth

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Jonathan Foley is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of the Minnesota, where he is a professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. He also leads the IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative.

It’s taken a long time, but the issue of global climate change is finally getting the attention it deserves. There is now widespread acceptance of the need to confront energy security and global warming. We finally acknowledge that our addiction to fossil fuels, which has been harming our national security, economy and environment for decades, must end.

Unfortunately, this positive shift in the national zeitgeist has had an unintended downside. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crisis, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to ignore equally serious environmental issues, such as the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?

For the record, I’m no climate change skeptic. I earned my Ph.D. in atmospheric science and wrote my thesis on ancient climate change, but even I worry about our collective fixation on global warming at the expense of other issues. Learning from the research my colleagues and I have done over the past decade, I fear we are neglecting “the other” inconvenient truth: a global crisis in land use and agriculture that could undermine the health, security and sustainability of our civilization.

Our use of land, particularly for agriculture, is absolutely essential to the success of the human race. But we are pushing our agricultural systems to the limits. Continued population growth, changing dietary preferences, rising energy prices and increasing needs for bioenergy sources are putting tremendous pressure on our natural resources. And it’s likely we’ll need to double, perhaps triple, global agricultural production in the next 30 to 40 years.

Already, the area we use for agriculture is nearly 60 times larger than that of all the world’s cities and suburbs, leading to major ecosystem losses and biodiversity decline. Plus, we’re facing a severe decline in freshwater resources resulting from agriculture. Across the globe, we use 4,000 cubic kilometers of water per year, withdrawn from our streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers. Of this, 70 percent is used for irrigation, the single biggest use of water on the planet. At the same time, industrial fertilizers and other agro-chemicals have fundamentally upset Earth’s chemistry.

Ironically enough, our land use practices are also one of the biggest contributors to global warming. Of the three most significant manmade greenhouse gasses, 30 percent of the total comes from land use and agriculture. That’s more than the emissions from all the world’s cars, trucks, trains and planes, or the emissions from all electricity generation or manufacturing.

Even in circles of well-informed scientists, the notion that our land use and agricultural practices rival climate change as a global environmental threat often comes as a big surprise. Clearly, we need to begin a larger national conversation about this issue, on par with the recent efforts of the climate change community and Al Gore.

That’s exactly what we intend to do with Momentum: Start a conversation. The print magazine may be small, but we’re not short on quality material. In this issue, our writers delve into everything from the Green Revolution—past, present and future—to the early warning signs of environmental tipping points.

Providing for the basic needs of 9 billion-plus people, without destroying the biosphere in the process, will be one of the greatest challenges our species has ever faced. It will require the imagination, determination and hard work of countless people from around the world. But the first step is admitting we have more than one problem.

Jonathan Foley
Director, Institute on the Environment


Read an extended version of “The Other Inconvenient Truth” at Yale Environment 360.