Food for the planet: reflections on a TED talk by Jon Foley

By Joern Fischer

Thanks to a tweet by Victor Galaz, I came across a new TED talk by Jon Foley. I have tremendous respect for him. He published two landmark papers: in 2005, on “human consequences of land use“, and in 2011 on “solutions for a cultivated planet“. I was very impressed by his talk, because unlike so many other leading scientists, he very explicitly tries to de-polarise opinions. I still think he emphasises certain things over others; so dietary change doesn’t get much of a mention, and equity in food distribution (I think) gets no mention at all. He (mostly implicitly) seems  takes as given that we must double (or triple) food production to keep up with growing demand. Interestingly, also, he talks about the need for closing yield gaps, with special reference to Eastern Europe — because it has major yield gaps. I can’t help but think that the yield gap story is a big fallacy, that somehow we can get a free lunch: more production at no environmental cost. This may work in some cases, but in Transylvania at least, I feel closing yield gaps will mean getting rid of “excess” biodiversity … Tibi and I responded to Foley’s original paper here.

Anyway, it’s easier to criticise than to present a great talk: and this is a great talk, I think, from one of the leading thinkers (and doers) on this front.

The original TED talk is here:

Or just watch it here:


3 thoughts on “Food for the planet: reflections on a TED talk by Jon Foley

  1. Thanks Joern for this post. The Foley et al. (2011) paper generated much debate – unfortunately posting comments regarding to this paper was not possible in Nature (the journal). Indeed I also feel that sometimes people can be too enthusiastic with a ‘quite easy’ solution (e.g. we dont have food? then lets close yield gaps).

    What about closing the (increasing) social-fragmentation gap rather than agricultural production yield gaps? Starting with the economically richest countries and people – to show good examples for developing countries about how to use natural resources and energy in stainable way, and to show examples about changing (the own – first of all…) life philosophies in a way to produce a human and environmental friendly world.

    We – the developing country people, e.g. in Romania, which is very very rich in traditionas and landscapes – would like to see that powerful societies makes real steps in these directions. But, instead of this, still most of the messages reaching us are about ‘produce more’, ‘develop more’, ‘consume more’, ‘you are primitive’, ‘poor’ etc.

    These are my perceptions – I really dont know about the fate of this big planet, and I am outsider of many things. But as we wrote with Joern: I would be careful with closing yield gaps in Eastern Europe. There is much more here than big yield gaps (even if for ‘western’ societies the agricultural production yield gaps may be the most attractive…).


  2. It’s surprising that Jon Foley didn’t give more attention to consumption and waste in his talk. It should be noted that in his Nature paper and in his 2011 talk in Stockholm (, he mentions dietary change and waste reduction as two main pillars of his “five solutions” package.

    Tibor, I agree that wealthy countries need to address their consumption behaviour. From a system’s perspective, downsizing the demand is just as important as increasing the supply. I am optimistic, though, that such a change is possible. And in fact, it’s well under way, albeit in form of grassroots movements. In some countries, the topic is moving up the hierarchy. For example, in Germany, the government has recently made a first step to acknowledge the problem of food waste:,,15806644,00.html – That’s a start.
    In my opinion, reducing waste is an important environmental issue. But it’s also an ethical imperative.

  3. Dear Viktoria – many thanks for the post. I am also optimistic and hope that the waste issue, together with other issues (e.g. environmentally and socially correct use of natural resources of ‘poor’ countries by rich countries) will be more efficiently addressed in the future.

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