A new report, published online in the journal Science, titled “Radically Rethinking Agriculture for the 21st Century” was prepared by sixteen top specialists in population, climate, agriculture, and food genetics. They represented a mixture of academics, corporations (Monsanto, DuPont), and government scientists. The report was first presented to the U.S. State Department in 2009. Three things stand out from what is a relatively high profile warning about the future:
1. Sheer population growth alone, especially in tropical areas of the world, will put enormous pressure on the capacity of arable (farming) land within fifteen degrees latitude of the equator. Overall the world’s population will increase 30% to about 9 billion by the end of the century, which by itself will strain the food production capacity.
2. Global warming will increase the average temperatures in the tropical areas, reducing crop yields. More variable weather, especially droughts will affect agricultural output in the temperate zones. Overall, the production capacity of agriculture worldwide could drop by 20-30% by the end of the century.
3. Most of the world’s arable land is already under cultivation (and in fact, declining due to urbanization and soil loss). Significant expansion of agricultural output cannot come from adding more farming area. Expansion has to come from more productivity of existing crops on land already in use. This means that farming techniques and crops themselves must be optimized for productivity and climate conditions – meaning genetic modification (which the report calls ‘contemporary molecular techniques’).
The report hits some perplexing and (un-) popular hot spots: Overpopulation, global warming, and gene modified food. It will be no surprise if there are voices of dissent, dismay, and derision. It probably should be added to the Cassandra List, the list of dire warnings being given about climate, water, food, energy, and social conditions that all seem to converge at or about the end of this century. (Mythology refresher: Cassandra was a lady of ancient Troy known to be a prophet, until she ran afoul of the god Apollo, who laid a curse on her so that none of her predictions would be believed. As it has been eloquently put, she suffered from a combination of deep understanding and powerlessness.)
In the words of one of the report’s authors:
“We’re really asking for yield gains comparable to those at the peak of the green revolution, but sustained for an unprecedented length of time, 40 years, and at a time when climate change is acting against us,” said Dr. David Battisti, a University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor.
A major obstacle is that many of the institutions involved do not work together closely enough to succeed and, despite years of safe production and consumption, there is continued resistance to crops such as corn and soybeans that have been genetically modified to be insect resistant and tolerant of herbicides.
“There has to be a lot of creative thinking, a greater blending of biotechnology and agriculture and better coordination between private and public research efforts throughout the world for us to keep pace with the increasing demand for food,” Battisti said. “We need to be thinking about the long-term demands for food and the environmental and social ramifications of how we will produce it.”