Sep 20 2019

The Next Agricultural Revolution

The current world population is 7.7 Billion. World population will approach 10 billion by 2050. The primary limiting factor on human population is the availability of food. We are already currently using essentially all the available practical arable land. Expanding farmland further at this point would involve using less productive land, cutting down forests, or displacing populations. Converting ecosystems into farmland also has a huge impact on the environment and species diversity.

So how are we going to feed 10 billion people in 30 years? So far agricultural development has kept up with demand. It’s tempting to assume that such development will continue to keep up with our needs. This is the endless “peak whatever” debate – if we extrapolate any finite resource into the future, it always seems like it will run out. But historically scientific development and simple ingenuity has generally changed the game, pushing off any resource crash into the future. This has lead to two schools of thought – those who argue that history will continue to repeat itself and we will indefinitely push our resources as needed, and those who argue that no matter how clever we are, finite is finite and will eventually run out.

When we are talking about food, the result of a crash in resources means mass starvation. That is how nature solves the limited food problem; animals starve and reduce the population until a natural equilibrium is reached. And you cannot say that mass starvation has never happened. In the 1960s at least 36 million people in China starved to death due to mismanagement of their agricultural system. We may be setting ourselves up for repeats of this situation. If we push our agricultural system to its limits in order to feed a growing population, does that system become increasingly vulnerable? What if a blight wipes out a staple crop, or bad weather significantly reduces yield? We may have less and less reserve or buffer in the system to handle these kinds of events.

We can talk about population control, and that is a valid approach. I mostly favor population control through lifting people out of poverty and gender equality, which are the most significant causes of overpopulation. Regardless, there is no reasonable expectation that we will stop the human population from reaching 10 billion and it’s not clear where we will level off. We need a plan to feed this population. I reject the radical suggestion that we should keep food production where it is, or even reduce it, and let that be a natural check on population growth. This solution is mostly suggested by those will little chance of starving as a result, a burden that will mostly fall on the poor and oppressed.

So how, then, do we feed 10 billion people with cutting down the rainforest? Fortunately we do seem to have room for another agricultural revolution, meaning that we have already identified inefficiencies in food production that can be improved. These improvement fall into two general categories, farming improvements and advances in the crops themselves.

Farming improvements include things like better soil management, delivering water and fertilizer in optimal amounts in more precise locations to maximize use and minimize waste, using artificial intelligence and big data to manage large farms, and the use of drones and robotics to automate some of the drudgery of farming. For example, researchers are developing robots that can pick weeds. If we perfect this technology, this can be a highly effective means of reducing weeds, minimizing the use of herbicides and tilling. We can also optimize the use of land with more vertical farming.

We are also poised for significant improvements in crops themselves. This comes, again, from two main scientific advances – knowledge of crop genetics and the technology to make genetic alterations, specifically CRISPR. In the past genetic advances in crops was achieved by waiting for a favorable mutation and then hopefully the right person finds it and cultivates it. In the past century we have sped up this process considerably through a few methods, such as making hybrids. With hybrid crops we can mix and match features of related cultivars. This process has been pushed with forced hybridization – using techniques to allow more and more distant species to hybridize.

We also extensively use mutation breeding, treating plants with either chemicals or radiation to speed up the mutation process, then plant the result and sort through the hundreds or thousands of hopeful monsters looking for a beneficial result. This is not some new technique. It has been used since 1930, with about 3200 cultivars released on the market.

In the last 20 years we have been using more advanced techniques, collectively known as genetic modification (although all the techniques result in genetic modification, and this category has been criticized as being ultimately arbitrary). Specifically there are techniques to alter or silence genes already present in plants, or to insert genes from either closely or distantly relates species. These techniques have, unfortunately, been unfairly and unscientifically demonized, when in fact they have proven to be entirely safe and effective.

GM technology is also poised to produce another agricultural revolution, one that is needed if we are going to feed our growing population while limiting the negative effect on the ecosystem. A recent article reviews the current state of agricultural genetics. In recent years we have made tremendous advances in understanding the genetic basis of the past agricultural advances, which creates the potential to replicate these benefits at will in almost any crop desired.

For example, there are genetic systems in crops that are highly evolutionarily conserved, so they are the same even in distantly related crops. One is the Gibberellin system, which control the height of stems. In the past we have bred dwarf varieties of plants, such as wheat, to keep them from getting too tall as a result of modern fertilization. When the stalks become to tall they bend and crimp, causing rot. Dwarf wheat dramatically increased yields. The same exact genetic system, it turns out, also applies to rice, even though they are distantly related.

Another system is the florigen system, which controls flowering. This can be manipulated to increase yields. There are also gene systems that can influence drought resistance, cold tolerance, and resistance to pests. We are also unpacking the genetics of more efficient photosynthesis, and fixing nitrogen from the air.

The bottom line is that we still have a lot of head room in order to improve the efficiency of agriculture. However, we will need to take advantage of our modern knowledge of genetics and gene editing techniques in order to fully realize these improvement. We don’t really have the luxury of ignoring or eschewing this technology because of narrow-minded and misguided ideology.

This is the great irony of the anti-science left – well-meaning environmentalists who oppose nuclear power will ultimately worsen global warming, and those who oppose GM technology will worsen the negative impact of farming on the environment. Hopefully reality will overtake ideology. We’ll see.

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