A century ago, scientists, agribusiness, farmers and policymakers saw a world with both a growing population and agricultural production systems that would not be able to keep up. Agriculture needed to expand, intensify and become more productive - but how?
Spurred by predictions that the world would run out of food, innovations began to take shape. Chemists figured out how to pull nitrogen literally from thin air (and got the Nobel Prize for it in 1918), a major step in developing the synthetic fertilizers that subsequently enabled crop production to grow by leaps and bounds. Improved pesticides and herbicides followed, along with more resilient plant breeds, further invigorating agriculture the world over.
As a direct result of all this, over the past 50 years, while the world population has doubled and the demands on global agriculture have tripled, the proportion of people suffering from hunger has been cut in half. There are still too many hungry and undernourished people in the world – more than 800 million according to the United Nations – but by all measures this is progress.
Progress, yes, but not problem solved. In a sense, we are right back where we started, looking at the future and wondering how we are going to feed all these additional people that will soon inhabit our world. Except now we must do it amid the effects of climate change and without converting into farmland what’s left of our rainforests, savannahs and other sensitive natural areas.
There is, however, an even bigger challenge, largely ignored, that has to do with the unintended consequences of well-intentioned efforts to produce more food from each acre of land. Not just the synthetic fertilizers and other chemical inputs but also, most critically, the large-scale farming techniques they have helped spawn. Specifically, the trend toward industrial farming practices like mono-cropping has resulted in vast areas – even entire biomes – being essentially cleared of all but one or two plant varieties such as soy, sugarcane, corn or wheat.
Producers didn’t create this situation on their own. Rather, they have been responding to a market that demands near-term production efficiencies and in which 60 percent of global caloric intake comes from just five crops. The end result, however, is the creation of “green deserts,” an end-run around Mother Nature that makes farming not only bad for the environment but a long-term threat to agriculture itself. This is because raising only one or two types of plants over vast expanses of land creates a vicious downward spiral that depletes nutrients from the soil, leaving it weak and unable to support healthy plant growth without adding ever-increasing amounts of synthetic fertilizers. It also creates new opportunities for pests, weeds and diseases that a more biodiverse landscape would normally suppress on its own, thereby giving rise to the need for the application of more and stronger chemicals to combat them.
In Brazilian soybean areas, the plant disease Asian rust has become so resistant to chemical treatments that many farmers now have to spray for it several times over the course of their growing season, further diminishing soil health, ground water and biodiversity. Similarly, soy farmers in in the U.S. and Latin America are finding that the relatively less toxic herbicides such as glyphosate, also known by its brand name Roundup, are not working as effectively as they once did, prompting many to switch to stronger chemicals that are more destructive to local biodiversity. And researchers have found that reducing plant diversity in an agricultural area can itself attract greater numbers of crop-destroying insects, largely because it is so easy for them to thrive when their favorite food is all around them.
Put all this together and farming in the green deserts, with increasing applications of inputs, can be sustained only to a point – after which soil health collapses, pests and diseases become intolerable, and the land loses its productivity. And with that goes the ability of global agricultural systems to keep pace with growing food demand. By relying on agricultural practices that reduce plant diversity over large areas, we are creating pest and disease resistance and that is going to set us back 50 years in terms of our ability to produce food.
So what’s the answer to this?
As Albert Einstein said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We need to think anew and make fundamental changes across global agricultural systems, and we can start by moving biodiversity and soil health to the very front of the global agenda. Yes, we need to save critical natural areas such as rainforests and savannahs. But equally critical is saving our future capacity to produce food. The fact that there isn’t anything like a New York Declaration to curtail monocultural practices indicates that we have never seriously considered any alternatives.
Which is crazy. Ninety percent of the world’s food originates in the land. And diversified farming techniques that actually enhance soil health and biodiversity are proven to be more profitable and productive in the long run than those that are now leading us toward ecosystem collapse.
But that’s not to say that making this shift is going to be a simple matter. We’re talking about a sea change in the way that much of the world’s farming is now done. To accomplish it will require a greater focus on innovation and scaling up of nascent technologies that have shown great promise in restoring and enhancing biodiversity on agricultural lands – and doing so in a way that will enable producers to grow more, healthier and more profitable food in perpetuity. These include microbial and other biological additives to enrich soils, as well as continuous living cover cropping systems that will preserve soil health complementary to the cash crops being grown. What’s needed is a greater investment and policy focus aimed at getting these innovations to market and supporting their adoption across a wide scale.
One ray of hope for driving this investment is offered by the recent creation of an Agrobiodiversity Index by the global research organization Biodiversity International. The index will give decision makers critical information and a set of standards for measuring agrobiodiversity in diets, food production and genetic resources, with an eye toward increasing their understanding of how agrobiodiversity affects food production and identifying concrete actions to achieve diverse and truly sustainable food systems for the world’s growing population.
It may seem like a tall order, but we’ve been here before. Scientists, producers and policy makers have met food security challenges in previous eras, developing miracle solutions that completely changed agriculture. It is time once again to reboot our global agricultural systems, this time to put them squarely on the side of keeping lands healthy so that they may continue to feed humanity for many, many generations to come.
Originally Posted on Chicago Council on Global Affairs
February 28, 2019