Beauty and the Beast: Agriculture for the Future

It’s a tale as old as time. How will we feed all the people on this planet of ours, especially with the global population set to reach 9 billion by 2050?

Proponents of organic agriculture have their answer: we must return to nature, our roots, a Jeffersonian ideal of what a farm really is. Meanwhile, advocates of conventional farming say we must reach for higher yields, using science and technology to push the limits of nature. The two are often at odds: a consortium of organic seed growers even took Monsanto to court based on the very fear that the agricultural giant might sue them for inadvertently growing their patented genetically modified seeds.

A recent paper published in the journal PLOS One showed that, at current growth rates, yields will be insufficient to meet the increased demand by 2050. Researchers agree that providing for the future will take a multitude of changes: closing yield gaps, shifting to more plant-based diets, and decreased waste. In addition, many studies suggest that land sparing is the best approach to feed the world and maintain biodiversity. But, any strategy to mitigate food insecurity must take a multi-disciplinary approach and be examined on a crop- and location-specific basis.

"Yield Trends Are Insufficient to Double Global Crop Production by 2050" “Yield Trends Are Insufficient to Double Global Crop Production by 2050”
The dotted line shows the yield increases needed to meet global demand by 2050. The solid lines show where current yield increase trends will get production.

Organic agriculture alone can’t provide all the food we need. But, it has informed conventional growing in many ways, offering environmentally sound methods to control pests. Likewise, GM crops have been able to decrease pesticide use and their potential is far from fulfilled, often cornered in a room of regulations. The future requires more transparent, expedient regulation and approval for GM crops so that innovation can be fully unleashed.

“It would be perverse if the costs of regulation yet again lock up the promise of agricultural innovation within a few large companies,” Brian Heap writes in last week’s Nature. “The biosciences can play a big part in the sustainable intensification of agriculture, improving efficiency in production and avoiding further loss of biodiversity.”

As Paul Krugman points out today, the United States is far from the rural nation it was in 1776; the organic, Jeffersonian ideal is extinct. We’re an urban nation, and we need science to help provide for the food of our future. It goes by different names: organic, genetic engineering, sustainable agriculture. These movements all have the same goal though- developing a sustainable food source as demand doubles over the next 40 years.

“A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available…they are biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms [scientists] seek to control,” Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring. Genetics, organic, and ecology are all different branches of this biological solution. And the problems now extend way beyond controlling pests.

To achieve the goal of food security, scientists and organics must begin to listen to each other, inform each other, and implement each other’s ideas. Sustainable agriculture won’t come solely from increasing yields and efficiency or from turning every mono-culture factory farm into an organic, free-range, Whole Foods farm. It will take some combination of best practices to provide for the future and protect the environment. It’s time for organic growers and GM crop developers to realize they are fighting the same battle and stop fighting each other.