PORTLAND, Maine — Growing up, the stars over Dixmont inspired Jonathan Foley to pursue the career in science that has earned him international awards and made him a leading voice addressing how to feed the world’s growing population without ruining the planet in the process.
Those answers aren’t in the stars, said the scientist, who was born in Bangor and attended Nokomis High School after moving to Dixmont, distinctions that don’t often get a listing in his speaking introductions.
“[Astronomy] was wonderful, but not very practical for this moment in history,” said Foley during a presentation hosted by the Natural Resources Council of Maine at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute on Monday. “This moment is calling upon us to do something bigger than our own personal interest.”
Some of those answers, he said, could be in agricultural markets like Maine.
Foley deals in big numbers and big ideas, highlighted recently in his May cover story for National Geographic detailing his five-step plan for feeding the 2 billion more people expected to bring the world’s population to more than 9 billion by 2050. And that plan doesn’t necessarily involve governments.
“We know so much more than just five or 10 years ago and yet our ability to act in a coordinated way through the federal government or internationally is worse than ever,” Foley said in an interview. “So, I think we need to find other places to lead.”
That is based on his assessment of global progress on issues such as climate change, where he said repeated meetings between scientists and diplomats have so far failed to address the “big global problem.”
“There are other centers of power that are much more influential than countries,” Foley said, noting that changes in technology have made it easier for nonprofit groups and companies to create broader social change.
That comes as the world operates differently than ever before.
Looking back over the last 50 years, he said, the world’s population has more than doubled, the inflation-adjusted economy grew more than seven times and required consumption of three times more food and four times more fossil fuel.
“Some of the pressures are kind of mind-boggling,” Foley said.
On a global scale, Foley has focused on the two major issues of energy consumption and agriculture, areas he said are primarily responsible for humanity’s impact on the planet.
He has set out five goals to address those issues: Stop deforestation and hold or reduce agricultural use of land, which takes up about 38.6 percent of the Earth’s surface; increase farmland yields; use less fossil fuel and water in farming; grow meat more efficiently or change diets to include less meat; and reduce the nearly 25 percent of food calories that are wasted.
Foley’s research has earned him a $250,000 prize in the most recent round of awards from the Heinz Foundation and has brought him a number of other accolades over his career, but in his next move he’s looking to bring his science outside the classroom.
“I’m getting more and more frustrated that we can do the good science, but if we just do it in the universities and in the ivory tower, it doesn’t do us any good,” Foley said.
In August, he moves from his job as director of the Institute for the Environment at the University of Minnesota to become executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, which has a museum that welcomes up to 2 million visitors annually, he said. That will provide him a chance to bring research like his to the the public.
“The clock is ticking and we don’t have a lot of time to get on a more sustainable path with water or energy or agriculture,” said Foley. “These problems are only going to get worse if we don’t get innovative.”
Part of that work involves innovations in agriculture that he said could happen in areas like Maine, where small-scale farms growing diverse crops are able to change faster than larger operations and where the principles of the back-to-the-land movement have had lasting effects.
“There’s not much farmland compared to other states because it’s so forested, but what farmland there is is so variable,” he said.
Foley, who for the past 20 years has researched global agriculture and ecosystems, said that Maine’s growing number of farms, increasing attention to methods of food production and Vacationland status make it a “cool laboratory in thinking about food.”
“I think Maine is punching way outside its weight class when it comes to agriculture,” said Foley.
Foley said the state also stands to lead in that area because the state’s natural environment is more closely linked to its economic and cultural fabric than other places, which are connections he said are crucial to getting people’s attention focused on environmental issues that affect people’s livelihood and health.
“One problem scientists have is that we all suffer from this ‘science deficit model’ — if we just pour facts into people’s head, we think all of a sudden people will be more science literate,” he said. “People need to know more science but they need to be inspired by something.”
That, he said, could be a museum like the one he’ll oversee, or it could be from an upbringing in Dixmont.
“I always wanted to be a scientist,” Foley said, “but [growing up] around the farms and lakes and oceans made me think of how science could be used to do more for the environment … It’s a lovely part of the world that had a deep influence on me.”