Jon Foley: Will Our Demand For Food Threaten Our Supply of Water? Ecologist Jon Foley says agriculture is the "most powerful force unleashed on this planet since the end of the ice age." He says we're using too much to irrigate and we have to rethink how we farm.

Will Our Demand For Food Threaten Our Supply of Water?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - finite ideas about the resources we use and how to make the most of what's left.

JON FOLEY: I mean, think about the great American story, right? A bunch of white guys from Europe show up on the East Coast and think the land is theirs, and they just plow across the continent and use more and more and more. Just go west, young man, and there'll be more resources. But...

RAZ: But, says Jon Foley...

FOLEY: ...Well, we hit the Pacific and we had to stop (laughter), you know? And there isn't any more. We've run out. We have run out of planet, in fact.

RAZ: Jon Foley is an ecologist who runs the California Academy of Sciences.

FOLEY: And one thing that I talk about a lot with folks is that, you know, think about the last 50 years. In the last 50 years, the human population more than doubled. Our use of food and water more than tripled and our use of fossil fuels more than quadrupled in just 50 years.

RAZ: Wow.

FOLEY: That means - yeah, isn't that crazy?

RAZ: Yeah, crazy.

FOLEY: That means that, in a single lifetime, the world has changed more than all of human history combined.

RAZ: Wow.

But one change, Jon says, beats all the others.

FOLEY: Agriculture's probably the biggest thing we've ever done to the planet.

RAZ: And the one thing that makes agriculture possible - water.

FOLEY: It turns out 70 percent or 90 percent, depending how you do the bookkeeping, of all the water consumed by people around the world is used for one thing - irrigating crops.

RAZ: Jon Foley says that water and food are connected in a way that is just not sustainable. So think about California, for example.

FOLEY: Water problems in California are, in the first order, a food problem. The biggest consumer of water in California right now is alfalfa. Alfalfa alone is using more water than all of the humans in California combined, and most of it's being shipped overseas to use as dairy food, you know, for cows in the Middle East or in China. So we're exporting California water to the Middle East or China to make milk somewhere else. And so we've underpriced water, we've over exploited it. We don't actually regulate how people pump groundwater out of the ground, you can do that as much as you like. We just use too much.

RAZ: In fact, Jon argues that agriculture is the most powerful force unleashed on the planet since the end of the Ice Age. And even though it's using up a lot of our land and a ton of our water, he's not saying we should stop growing food, but that we have to be smarter about the way we grow it. Here's John on the TED stage.


FOLEY: This is a photograph flying into Arizona, and when you look at it, you're like, what are they growing here? It turns out they're growing lettuce in the middle of the desert, using water sprayed on top. But what's really interesting is this water's got to come from someplace, and it comes from here - the Colorado River, irrigating the desert for food or maybe golf courses in Scottsdale, you take your pick. Well, this is a lot of water, and again, we're mining water and using it to grow food. We've literally consumed an entire river for irrigation. And if anything, we're going to have the demands on agriculture increase into the future. It's not going to go away. It's going to get a lot bigger, mainly because of growing population. We're 7 billion people today, heading towards at least nine. More importantly, changing diets - as the world becomes wealthier as well as more populous, we're seeing increases in dietary consumption of meat, which take a lot more resources than a vegetarian diet does, so more people eating more stuff and richer stuff. And of course, we have to replace oil with other energy sources that will ultimately have to include some kinds of biofuels and bioenergy sources. So you put these together, it's really hard to see how we're going to get to the rest of the century without at least doubling global agricultural production.

RAZ: But if we keep doing that, I mean, we're going to have to start, like, rationing water all around the world - like, how much people use of it and maybe drink and how people grow food and how much of it they get.

FOLEY: Like a "Mad Max" movie, essentially (laughter).

RAZ: Yeah, like a "Mad Max" movie, right? Like "Mad Max." Here's my question - is that where we're headed? Like, if we do nothing, is that where we're going? And can we - you know, do you think that we'll be able to kind of make that not happen?

FOLEY: You know, it's kind of funny, given the business that I'm in, but I'm actually an optimist. I guess I - maybe it's not optimism, but I have hope. Hope's different than optimism.

RAZ: Yeah.

FOLEY: And my hope is that we can change that narrative, that humans at their best, when they're pushed into a corner and really see a problem, actually respond magnificently. And technology can help. I'm a big fan of drip irrigation. I'm a big fan of organic farming methods that tend to hold more moisture in the soil, getting rid of lawns, getting rid of things that kind of waste water really conspicuously. Let's tighten up our infrastructure. Let's cover canals so they don't evaporate. Let's get the pipes' leaks fixed. And there are lots and lots of things like that we can do.


FOLEY: Now, when I talk about this, people often tell me, well, isn't blank the answer - organic food, local food, GMOs, new trade subsidies, new farm bills? And, yeah, we have a lot of good ideas here, but not any one of these is a silver bullet. In fact, what I think they are is more like silver buckshot, and I love silver buckshot. You put it together, and you've got something really powerful. But we need to put them together. So what we have to do, I think, is invent a new kind of agriculture that blends the best ideas of commercial agriculture and the green revolution with the best ideas of organic farming and local food and the best ideas of environmental conservation, not to have them fighting each other, but for to have them collaborating together.

RAZ: But this is hard, right - I mean, to get people to focus on a problem that's - that's, like, not in their face, it doesn't seem so urgent.

FOLEY: Well, I think a lot of folks would argue that, you know, we're fighting millions of years of evolution as Homo sapiens and thousands of years of history as civilized humans, that it tells us that we should be out there exploiting resources so we could survive to the next day.

RAZ: Yeah.

FOLEY: But if it meant using a little more soil or a little more land or grabbing a few extra animals to eat, that was our job. I mean, we went from - all of human history, we were basically insignificant compared to the size of the earth. And now, suddenly, in one generation or so, we've flipped it around. Now, humans are bigger than the earth. Our appetite for resources is bigger than what the earth can actually provide. That's never happened before, so we're trying to get as smart as possible, in a generation or two, to undo millions of years of our evolution and thousands of years of history. That's really hard.

RAZ: Yeah.

FOLEY: But we're getting smarter, just as we're also getting dumber (laughter) about the planet. And I'd like to tip the scales to see how we can make the smarter win out.

RAZ: That's Jon Foley. He's an ecologist and the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences. You can see his entire talk at

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