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Scientists propose a ‘Five-Step Plan’ to save the planet

A 5-step plan to save the planet sounds ridiculous, I know. But, as they say, even the longest journey begins with the first step.

Rather than simply get overwhelmed at all of the world’s many problems, an environment and land-use professor at the University of Minnesota and his colleagues decided to come up with a workable game plan to simultaneously deal with three major, overlapping forces that dictate our future:

Population growth, agriculture and the environment. Says study leader Jonathan A. Foley in an online article in Scientific American, Can We Feed the World and Sustain the Planet?:

Right now about one billion people suffer from chronic hunger. the world’s farmers grow enough food to feed them, but it is not properly distributed and, even if it were, many cannot afford it, because prices are escalating.

But another challenge looms.

By 2050 the world’s population will increase by two billion or three billion, which will likely double the demand for food, according to several studies.

That doesn’t sound too promising, especially when Foley and his colleagues go on to note that our current approach to agriculture uses about 40 percent of Earth’s land already and our approach to farming contributes about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Most of our water use also goes to agriculture.

And if population growth continues at its current rate, we will need to double food production by 2050.

Yikes! Anyone planning a trip to Mars?

Actually, Foley and his colleagues employed some space scientist techniques and satellite data to come up with an overview of the situation and some proposed global solutions. You can read the details and look at some of their great maps showing the specifics, but here’s their five-point plan:

  1. Stop agriculture from consuming more tropical land.
  2. Boost the productivity of farms that have the lowest yields.
  3. Raise the efficiency of water and fertilizer use worldwide.
  4. Reduce per capita meat consumption.
  5. Reduce waste in food production and distribution.

The priorities among these five and methods will differ, the researchers note, depending upon where they are being implemented. And these five steps are certainly easier said than done, of course.

As NPR’s story by Dan Charles says — Facing Planetary Enemy No. 1: Agriculture — there are a lot of economic incentives in the way we do things now. That doesn’t make it impossible, just a bit more complicated than it may look.

Here are links to some other reports in the New York Times and Minnesota Star Tribune on Foley’s Five-Step Plan to Save The Planet.

Here’s Foley pitching his planet-saving scheme at a really great TED talk:



About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.