Can Agriculture Save the Planet Before It Destroys It?

Posted by Jack Bobo
May 17, 2014
Workers Transplant Lettuce at a Farm in New York

Most people spend little time thinking about where their food comes from, how it is produced and how it makes it to their plate. Until something goes wrong. As soon as there is a problem -- E. coli in spinach or salmonella in peanut butter -- people understandably begin to ask questions about food safety inspections, practices of the agriculture industry, and larger questions about how farming has changed in the past 50 years.

The same occurs with respect to hunger. Until 2008, when people in the Middle East and Haiti started rioting because of high food prices, the issue of access and availability of safe and nutritious food had practically disappeared from public discourse. Most of us, unless you’re hungry or there are people protesting or looting in your streets, underestimate the importance of a stable and safe food supply to our society and our standard of living.

With the global population expected to reach nine billion in less than 40 years, the sustainable production of agriculture will be increasingly on the minds of governments, private industry, and even many consumers. Not only do we have to increase the amount of food available, we have to find ways to minimize its footprint on the planet. There is no activity that humankind engages in that has a bigger impact on the planet than agriculture. This is true in terms of impacts on land and water resources as well as in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Therefore one of the great challenges that confront all of us in the next 40 years is to figure out how to maximize the production of food while minimizing the negatives consequences of agriculture -- from polluted waterways to disappearing rainforests. 

This seems like a daunting task, and yet, science and technology have proven capable of increasing production year after year for decades. Prior to the 1900s, agricultural yields increased at a painfully slow pace. However, at the beginning of the last century a series of agricultural breakthroughs ushered in dramatic growth in food production. The first of these revolutions was the advent of synthetic fertilizer in 1915, followed by mechanization, hybrid seeds, pesticides and, most recently, genetically engineered (GE) crops. Corn is a great example; to produce a bushel of corn we use 50 percent less water, 40 percent less land, 60 percent less soil erosion, 40 percent less energy, and 35 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than we did just three decades ago.

But, we will have to do more.

In order to sustainably feed 9 billion people, global agriculture will need to produce 60 percent more food using less land, less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides. In other words, we will need to do everything better than we are doing it today and our rivers and lakes are already running dry.

The rapid pace of technological development suggests that scientists may, indeed, be able to sustain the growth of the past. But this will only happen if scientists are able to apply the most advanced technologies to the problems at hand. This is a hardly a certainty at the moment given opposing views of the future as reflected in the slow food movement and liberalized trade in food products. Figuring out how to understand and balance these real and, in some ways, opposing trends, will determine the future health of our planet.

We need the best ideas from organic and ecological food systems combined with modern advances in molecular breeding and genetics if we are to address this pressing challenge and sustainably feed a growing planet. I will be the first to admit that science doesn’t always get it right. It’s also true, however, that you can’t get it right without science.

The good news is that after 2050 population growth will slow dramatically and everything will get easier. So, if we are able to get to 2050 without cutting down our forests and draining our rivers and lakes, we will be good forever. The next 40 years are not only the most important 40 years there have ever been in the history of agriculture. They are also the most important 40 years there will ever be in the history of agriculture.

We owe it to coming generations to use every tool available, from organic production to biotechnology, to increase the quantity and quality of food while minimizing the footprint of agriculture.  This will require the attention and effort of all of us. Our lives and the lives of our children depend on it.  And, if we’re successful, agriculture just might save the planet.

About the Author: Jack Bobo serves as Chief of Biotechnology and Textile Trade Policy and Senior Advisor for Biotechnology in the Department of State's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

Comments

Comments

Mercy P.
|
United States
May 21, 2014
Whenever I see the word "sustainable," I know that what is really meant is "feudal." You guys are simply opposed to seeing the poor countries develop, and you want to deny them the large scale infrastructure and energy-intensive technologies that they need to survive.
Ugandan G.
|
Uganda
May 22, 2014
Not true! Developing countries benefit greatly from the technological advances of the West, I see it everyday working in Uganda. They get to learn from a lot of the mistakes the West has made, and continues to make, with regards to damaging crops, pesticides, and other wasteful products. The world, and the way we look at it, has changed over the last hundred years.
Eric R.
|
Maryland, USA
May 24, 2014
There has been, for many years, and especially since the end of the Second World War, an insistent view in Western policy circles that increased food production depends upon technological development and capital investment --all geared toward the interests of an international food export economy-- rather than on ensuring secure access to land for local subsistence producers. The evidence strongly suggests, however, that improving the livelihood of peasant farmers is a far more credible way to create food security for most of the countries of the world. (See my book, The Malthus Factor: Poverty, Politics and Population in Capitalist Development.)

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