Boosting agricultural efficiency can help us create a world of more abundant food
The United Nations recently confirmed that the world population has officially reached 8 billion. However, what should be a celebration of humanity’s ability to innovate and populate has many analysts worried about the future: How is the planet supposed to lodge, power and feed this large number of people? According to a recent Politico headline, for one, climate change poses “8 billion reasons to worry.”
But while feeding 8 billion souls and counting might have been an insurmountable challenge for humanity a century ago, we are at a point where we cannot only do that, but we can also achieve it while using fewer resources. It’s a testament to the fact that when we harness innovation, we can enjoy greater abundance—both in the quantity and quality of what we have.
Getting to Peak Farmland Use
Even though the beginnings of modern farming date back to the 1850s and the Industrial Revolution—with the rise of machinery—it was the mid-20th century that was the real kick-starter for higher productivity. My own grandfather, born in 1925, used to farm with horses and plows on a farm (one that has since been replaced with a small airport handling around 100 flights a day). With the money they made from selling acreage (a regrettable decision given today’s property prices), my family invested in farming machinery that sped up work during harvest season.
Were my grandfather alive today, he would have a hard time believing his eyes at the high-tech level to which we have evolved. Tractors used to be mere replacements for horses in their early conception. Today, they are equipped with computers that regulate and measure everything from soil health to crop protection dosage. The modern farmer looks at computer screens almost as much as I do as a white-collar worker.
The technological progress of the last few decades has culminated in incredible agricultural efficiency. Our World in Data visualizes three major analyses that use different methodologies based on UN Food and Agriculture Organization data from 1961 onward, and while there is a divergence among the researchers on exactly how much land is used globally for farming, all agree that humanity surpassed peak agricultural land use between 1990 and the year 2000. This means that since that time, even as the planet’s food needs have continued to increase, farmers have been able to feed more people with fewer resources.
The effects of getting past peak farmland use are significant. Agriculture affects our environment by two factors. First, greenhouse gas emissions are caused by soil disruptions. And second, agriculture contributes to biodiversity loss. One of the major contributors to the reduction in forestland has not been the increase of habitation areas (humanity lives very densely given its size), but rather our need for farmland. Restoring the planet’s wildlands and wildlife can be achieved through increased agricultural efficiency: When we need less land to grow the same amount of food as we used to, that excess land can be reclaimed by nature.
The Promise—and Risks—of Agricultural Efficiency
How exactly were farmers able to achieve this upgrade in efficiency? One factor is crop protection. Up until the mainstream availability of chemical fungicides, insecticides and herbicides (all of which we know as pesticides), farmers were virtually powerless against the vast array of pests that destroyed their crops. For reference, there are 30,000 weed species, 3,000 species of nematodes and 10,000 species of plant-eating insects that farmers need to battle. Before we had chemicals to protect crops, our agriculture system was primarily dependent on luck to prevent significant losses, which explains why historically, religions across the globe have long focused prayers on good harvests and why harvest festivals are so common.
The Irish famine of 1845 killed 1 million people, which at the time represented 15% of the total population. Occurring about a century before the mainstream introduction of fungicides, the farming population had no ability to fight potato blight—leading to famines across Europe that caused civil unrest, even toppling the French July Monarchy in the Revolution of 1848.
Pesticides have offered a solution to farmers since the 1960s, significantly improving the chances of a good harvest, even if their use doesn’t fully guarantee that crops won’t be lost. However, with the use of pesticides came the risks associated with them. Inaccurate dosage and overuse not only posed environmental risks but also were costly for farms.
As farmers educated themselves on the appropriate deployment of chemicals, per-acre use declined by 40% over the last 60 years. Better guidance from manufacturers regarding dosage, as well as a more thorough understanding by farmers of exactly how much active ingredient was needed, also cut pesticide persistence (the degree to which a chemical is not broken down and remains in the soil) in half. The amount of active ingredients applied to crops fell by 95% over the same period of time. New technologies such as smart sprayers also cut pesticide use by precisely analyzing how much of a chemical was required for specific crops.
Last year, Sri Lanka inadvertently gave us a case study of the necessity of modern crop protection. In April 2021, the now-former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned all chemical fertilizers and pesticides in an effort to transition the country to an all-organic food model. The move steered the country into a food crisis: Domestic food production dropped by 50% and decimated the vital tea sector on which the country depends.
As the government scrambled to repeal the measure mere months after it was enacted, Sri Lankans became dependent on food aid from India and toppled the government after weeks of protests. Even with the law repealed by an interim government, 30% of the country faces acute food insecurity.
Innovation’s Many Benefits
One-size-fits-all solutions for the world’s farming challenges—from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to feeding more people efficiently—does not exist. Yet the experience of Sri Lanka shows that we cannot give up on the innovations of modern agriculture. We should also resist the conclusion that organic farming is manifestly the enemy of progress—it, too, can harness modern scientific miracles.
To date, organic agriculture has proven to be less efficient than conventional farming and has a larger carbon footprint—and that’s why not all in the organic sector preach a back-to-basics approach to their creed. Some argue that organic farming would benefit from new breeding techniques (NBTs), which use technologies such as CRISPR Cas-9 gene-editing for plant breeding. CRISPR is a technology that allows us to shut off undesirable genes in DNA, potentially even editing out genetic typos to improve both the resilience and health benefits of plants and to cure diseases.
While the organic community’s resistance to genetically modified crops may often be ideological, the advantages of genetic modification have become apparent in those jurisdictions where it can legally be deployed in food production. Gene-editing allows for crops to absorb 30% more carbon dioxide without ill effects on them, makes wheat safe for people suffering from celiac disease, creates allergy-free peanuts, and produces drought-resistant rice in India. Overall, gene-edited crops grow more efficiently with less resource use (such as water), thus accelerating the speed with which agricultural efficiency advances.
And the ability to selectively edit the genomic structure of crops has an application range that far surpasses what we believed to be previously feasible. In Japan, for example, a CRISPR-derived tomato that relieves hypertension has been approved for market use. The fruit produces higher levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which has been shown to reduce high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The opportunities presented by gene-editing include longer and healthier lives, and the ability to ease access to healthcare. If our food becomes our medicine at the same time, the prices of pharmaceuticals might even become less of a concern in the future.
The reason some places, such as Japan, Israel, the United States and Canada, have taken a more light-touch approach to the regulation of gene-edited crops is simple: Most of the crops we use today have had their genomes altered in a number of ways, either through selective cross-breeding or through nature- or human-caused gene mutations. Humans have long used ionizing radiation to create random mutations in crops—a technique that is less precise than gene-editing and is legal for use in organic agriculture, even in jurisdictions such as the European Union where NBTs are not currently permitted. Ionizing radiation is employed in plant-breeding to initiate heritable genetic changes, using techniques such as iron beam radiation, X-rays or UV lights. Despite its usefulness to create genetic variety, this technique is less reliable than modern gene-editing.
Some jurisdictions, most prominently the European Union, prohibit the use of gene-editing over unjustified precautionary rules, and they express skepticism over the import of food products derived from NBTs. Those jurisdictions that still ban gene-editing should adopt rules and regulations similar to those in the United States, Canada and Japan. New crop varieties can still be approved by regulatory agencies, without restricting the entire technology. Furthermore, regulators should allow for free food trade on an open marketplace, to make sure consumers get the maximum amount of choice.
The story of modern agriculture is impressive. It displays to what extent humanity is capable of overcoming the supposed limits to its own growth and development. Agricultural efficiency will continue to improve insofar as we allow for scientists, plant breeders and farmers to fully deploy their knowledge and skill in a way that benefits consumers and the environment alike.
Originally published here