Agricultural Technology Can Save Humanity from Starvation (Again)

We are on the cusp of yet another revolution in how we feed the populace.

By Jessica Eise | February 1, 2018

ISLAND PRESS, MARCH 2018Some 220 years ago, the somber-faced cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus made a dire prediction: food production could not possibly keep up with population growth in Great Britain. If measures were not taken to limit family size, chaos, starvation, and misery would ensue. And yet, such measures were not taken. The population exploded, but as it turned out, Malthus’s dystopian vision never came to pass. Agricultural production rose to the challenge.

Malthus’s warnings have a familiar ring today. Once more humanity is staring down the threat of a burgeoning population and concerns that there eventually won’t be enough food to go around. By 2050, we will have almost 10 billion mouths to feed in a world profoundly altered by environmental change.

Will history repeat itself, and again refute Malthusian doomsaying? Or will we and our food production capacity succumb to the pressures of unsustainable population growth?

In How to Feed the World, a diverse group of experts breaks down these crucial questions by tackling issues surrounding food security. 

One critical factor that Malthus left out of calculations of population growth and sustainability was the effect of agricultural revolutions. Humans have experienced three such revolutions, each fueled by technological advances, throughout history: the first, about 12,000 years ago, as our ancestors transitioned from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture; the second as 18th- and 19th-century British farmers drastically increased production, proving Malthus wrong; and the third as commercial-scale agriculture bloomed in the 20th century.  

None of humanity’s past successes, however, indicate that our modern concerns aren’t warranted. Environmental pollution, unsustainable water use, and large-scale land use changes raise doubts about our current food production systems. Ironically, many of the same technological innovations that have prevented starvation also wreak havoc on the environment.

But just because elements of past technologies harm the environment, we need not cast aside the concept of innovating our way out of a food crisis. On the contrary, returning to the crucible of technological innovation will help us find modern solutions.

As Purdue University agricultural economist Uris Baldos explains in his chapter on technology, although genetically engineered (GE) crops are extremely controversial in public dialog, all indications are that they are here to stay. Since the technology’s development in 1973, several GE crops have been created and commercialized. For example, crops containing a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis were developed to prevent crop damage from insects, and farmers have adopted them worldwide. There are ongoing efforts to roll out GE versions of fruits, oilseeds, and root crops. Aside from pest and herbicide resistance, plant breeders are also looking to incorporate other useful agronomic traits, such as drought and cold tolerance, virus resistance, and enhanced nutrient content. Some plant breeding programs aim for even-more-ambitious goals. There is an effort to supercharge the photosynthetic process of rice to overcome its current yield limit, for example.  

The technology undergirding genetic engineering is expanding at an extraordinary rate, and we are able to do things today that we hadn’t imagined possible mere years ago, such as precision genome editing. With the advent of more-efficient and more-precise genetic editing techniques, it is likely that any successful plans to feed the world will involve the use of GE crops.

Accomplishing that goal entails a range of challenges, as illustrated in How to Feed the World. Technological innovation can, once more, provide us with the means to overcome many of these seemingly insurmountable odds. But the technologies that saved us before definitely won’t save us again. Therefore, we face one central challenge. Before it is too late, can we innovate, invest in, and accept the technologies we will need to feed the world sustainably? 

Jessica Eise is an author and Ross Fellow in the Purdue University Brian Lamb School of Communication doctoral program. She coedited How to Feed the World with Ken Foster, former head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue. Read an excerpt of How to Feed the World.

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Comments

Avatar of: Al2

Al2

Posts: 3

February 3, 2018

It is absurd to speak of sustainability without a single mention of population factors.
Avatar of: Al2

Al2

Posts: 3

February 3, 2018

https://youtu.be/1sP291B7SCw
Avatar of: MarianH

MarianH

Posts: 1

February 18, 2018

I was very disappointed that Jessica Eise got a full page to promote her book, which appears to be thin on science and critical thinking.  The piece wouldn't even meet the standards for Popular Science.  Your readers deserve better. 

Avatar of: Diogenes24

Diogenes24

Posts: 5

February 19, 2018

The resource that is now running out is not food, but drinkable water. See the water crisis in Johannesburg, the sustained drought in California, the Middle East/Iran, the crop failures in India, etc.

I think the late British author John Fowles said it best: if we insist that we are free to breed like rabbits, nature will see to it that we die like them.

Avatar of: Keith Loritz

Keith Loritz

Posts: 29

February 19, 2018

Nature has always been a limiting factor. Mankind MUST decouple from our too dirty, too inefficient and too problematic reliance on cellular systems to provide for our needs. We must decouple from nature and produce our macronutrients via a pathway not dependent on cellular photosynthesis. Acellular photosynthesis is probably the only way forward and the only long term solution given all of the presenting issues.

Avatar of: Mellow Guy

Mellow Guy

Posts: 9

February 19, 2018

The oceans are overfished. We can fertilize the oceans at a low cost so that not only are the whales out of danger, but humans can have more fish.

 

Avatar of: Keith Loritz

Keith Loritz

Posts: 29

February 19, 2018

I forgot to mention (see above) we also solve many of our ongoing environmental issues at the same time. For example: climate change, eutrophication, pesticide/herbacide dangers among many others. Hopefully someday we will realize how close the solutions are to our grasp.

Avatar of: labXmedia

labXmedia

Posts: 2

February 19, 2018

This book reads like a pmomo for GE (aka GM ), and Purdue is known to be beholden to Monsanto's greed.

I am someone who has acquired many allergies and chemical sensitivities, and must avoid GMO food or suffer extreme reactions from arthritis which becomes crippling, and my gastro-intestinal system, since the GMOfood itself contains poisons, which evidently destroys my gut microbiome.

I have no quarrel with modifying seed, as Mendel and Borlaug  did, but with modifying seed so the food is grown in poison and itslf contains poison, endangers our health, and poisons our soil and water,  and in any  real research done by someone other than Monsanto/Syngenta shills, likely is responsible for many forms of cancer, such as any relalated to endocrine disruption, e.g., male sterility, birth defects, low-size infants, breast cancer, and many more, including non-Hodgekins-lymphoma. 

Adding B.t. to food makes the plants inedible to insects, poisonous to pollinators. and toxic to people's gut flora.  How can anyone believe it is a good idea to grow our food in poison ?!

Many of us find that switching to organic foods is necessary for our health and safety.  Food that was GM or now called GE is still toxic, and the food is toxic to those who consume it, and its required weedkiller is toxic to our soil and water.

How to Feed the World is a thinly-disguised bit of propaganda promoting the Monsanto/Bayer/Syngenta profiteering off their environmentally toxic policies.  

I think The Scientist should not promote toxic profiteering.

 

 

 

 

 

Avatar of: labXmedia

labXmedia

Posts: 2

February 19, 2018

This book reads like a pmomo for GE (aka GM ), and Purdue is known to be beholden to Monsanto's greed.

I am someone who has acquired many allergies and chemical sensitivities, and must avoid GMO food or suffer extreme reactions from arthritis which becomes crippling, and my gastro-intestinal system, since the GMOfood itself contains poisons, which evidently destroys my gut microbiome.

I have no quarrel with modifying seed, as Mendel and Borlaug  did, but with modifying seed so the food is grown in poison and itslf contains poison, endangers our health, and poisons our soil and water,  and in any  real research done by someone other than Monsanto/Syngenta shills, likely is responsible for many forms of cancer, such as any relalated to endocrine disruption, e.g., male sterility, birth defects, low-size infants, breast cancer, and many more, including non-Hodgekins-lymphoma. 

Adding B.t. to food makes the plants inedible to insects, poisonous to pollinators. and toxic to people's gut flora.  How can anyone believe it is a good idea to grow our food in poison ?!

Many of us find that switching to organic foods is necessary for our health and safety.  Food that was GM or now called GE is still toxic, and the food is toxic to those who consume it, and its required weedkiller is toxic to our soil and water.

"How to Feed the World" is a thinly-disguised bit of propaganda promoting the Monsanto/Bayer/Syngenta profiteering off their environmentally toxic practices.  

I think The Scientist should not promote toxic profiteering.

 

 

 

 

 

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