Professor Jonathan Foley discusses ‘The Other Inconvenient Truth’ at TEDxTC conference (Transcript)
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The other inconvenient truth by Jonathan Foley at TEDxTC – YouTube
Tonight, I want to have a conversation about this incredible global issue that’s at the intersection of land use, food and environment, something we can all relate to, and what I’ve been calling the other inconvenient truth.
But first, I want to take you on a little journey. Let’s first visit our planet, but at night, and from space. This is what our planet looks like from outer space at night time, if you were to take a satellite and travel around the planet. And the thing you would notice first, of course, is how dominant the human presence on our planet is. We see cities, we see oil fields, you can even make out fishing fleets in the sea, that we are dominating much of our planet, and mostly through the use of energy that we see here at night.
But let’s go back and drop it a little deeper and look during the daytime. What we see during the day is our landscapes. This is part of the Amazon Basin, a place called Rondônia in the south-center part of the Brazilian Amazon. If you look really carefully in the upper right-hand corner, you’re going to see a thin white line, which is a road that was built in the 1970s. If we come back to the same place in 2001, what we’re going to find is that these roads spurt off more roads, and more roads after that, at the end of which is a small clearing in the rainforest where there are going to be a few cows. These cows are used for beef. We’re going to eat these cows. And these cows are eaten basically in South America, in Brazil and Argentina. They’re not being shipped up here. But this kind of fishbone pattern of deforestation is something we notice a lot of around the tropics, especially in this part of the world.
If we go a little bit further south in our little tour of the world, we can go to the Bolivian edge of the Amazon, here also in 1975, and if you look really carefully, there’s a thin white line through that kind of seam, and there’s a lone farmer out there in the middle of the primeval jungle.
Let’s come back again a few years later, here in 2003, and we’ll see that that landscape actually looks a lot more like Iowa than it does like a rainforest. In fact, what you’re seeing here are soybean fields. These soybeans are being shipped to Europe and to China as animal feed, especially after the mad cow disease scare about a decade ago, where we don’t want to feed animals animal protein anymore, because that can transmit disease. Instead, we want to feed them more vegetable proteins. So soybeans have really exploded, showing how trade and globalization are really responsible for the connections to rainforests and the Amazon — an incredibly strange and interconnected world that we have today.
Well, again and again, what we find as we look around the world in our little tour of the world is that landscape after landscape after landscape have been cleared and altered for growing food and other crops.
So one of the questions we’ve been asking is, how much of the world is used to grow food, and where is it exactly, and how can we change that into the future, and what does it mean? Well, our team has been looking at this on a global scale, using satellite data and ground-based data kind of to track farming on a global scale. And this is what we found, and it’s startling. This map shows the presence of agriculture on planet Earth. The green areas are the areas we use to grow crops, like wheat or soybeans or corn or rice or whatever. That’s 16 million square kilometers’ worth of land. If you put it all together in one place, it’d be the size of South America.
The second area, in brown, is the world’s pastures and rangelands, where our animals live. That area is about 30 million square kilometers, or about an Africa’s worth of land, a huge amount of land, and it’s the best land, of course, is what you see. And what’s left is, like, the middle of the Sahara Desert, or Siberia, or the middle of a rain forest. We’re using a planet’s worth of land already. If we look at this carefully, we find it’s about 40% of the Earth’s land surface is devoted to agriculture, and it’s 60 times larger than all the areas we complain about, our suburban sprawl and our cities where we mostly live. Half of humanity lives in cities today, but a 60-times-larger area is used to grow food. So this is an amazing kind of result, and it really shocked us when we looked at that.
So we’re using an enormous amount of land for agriculture, but also we’re using a lot of water. 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. Now, the irony is, it’s probably sold in our supermarket shelves in the Twin Cities. But what’s really interesting is, this water’s got to come from some place, and it comes from here, the Colorado River in North America.
Well, the Colorado on a typical day in the 1950s, this is just, you know, not a flood, not a drought, kind of an average day, it looks something like this. But if we come back today, during a normal condition to the exact same location, this is what’s left. The difference is mainly 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, and today, if you travel down, further down the Colorado, it dries up completely and no longer flows into the ocean. We’ve literally consumed an entire river in North America for irrigation.
Well, that’s not even the worst example in the world. This probably is: the Aral Sea. Now, a lot you will remember this from your geography classes. This is in the former Soviet Union in between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, one of the great inland seas of the world. But there’s kind of a paradox here, because it looks like it’s surrounded by desert. Why is this sea here? The reason it’s here is because, on the right-hand side, you see two little rivers kind of coming down through the sand, feeding this basin with water. Those rivers are draining snowmelt from mountains far to the east, where snow melts, it travels down the river through the desert, and forms the great Aral Sea.
Well, in the 1950s, the Soviets decided to divert that water to irrigate the desert to grow cotton, believe it or not, in Kazakhstan, to sell cotton to the international markets to bring foreign currency into the Soviet Union. They really needed the money. Well, you can imagine what happens. You turn off the water supply to the Aral Sea, what’s going to happen? Here it is in 1973, 1986, 1999, 2004, and about 11 months ago. It’s pretty extraordinary. Now a lot of us in the audience here live in the Midwest. Imagine that was Lake Superior. Imagine that was Lake Huron. It’s an extraordinary change.
This is not only a change in water and where the shoreline is, this is a change in the fundamentals of the environment of this region. Let’s start with this. The Soviet Union didn’t really have a Sierra Club. Let’s put it that way. So what you find in the bottom of the Aral Sea ain’t pretty. There’s a lot of toxic waste, a lot of things that were dumped there that are now becoming airborne. One of those small islands that was remote and impossible to get to was a site of Soviet biological weapons testing. You can walk there today. Weather patterns have changed. Nineteen of the unique 20 fish species found only in the Aral Sea are now wiped off the face of the Earth. This is an environmental disaster writ large.