Food and Fuel for Thought

Ecomodern Dispatches

By Emma Brush and Alex Trembath

With all the bizarreness of this past week’s feuds, it’s important (for both our productivity and our sanity) to take stock of those debates that receive less airtime but that will prove of great consequence over the next half-century and beyond.

So let's check back in on food and fuel.

How will we increase agricultural yields to feed a world population of 9 billion, without also increasing farmland area? How will we meet the energy needs of developing countries, while also achieving global decarbonization?

These are clearly complex problems, and they will require solutions, technological and political, that add to the complexity. Certainly part of the way there, especially in a pluralistic democracy, will be through reasoned public debate. But when debates are rehearsed simply for debate’s sake, and when dogma, rather than reason, drives the conversation, it’s necessary to re-examine the terms of our conflicts and the assumptions upon which they rest -- such as the support of so many environmentalists for renewables over a zero-carbon energy source like nuclear, or the deep-seated resistance to biotechnology and machines when it comes to food production.

Questions of energy use and agricultural practice float quickly to the top of the environmental debate -- and also to some of the key concerns of modern life. As we weigh the evidence for and against the technologies at our disposal and under development we should also keep in mind the future we’re shooting for, and the individual biases and public myths that might stand in the way. For example:

Nuclear’s struggles continue. This week both Eduardo Porter and Will Boisvert highlighted a BNEF report’s finding that 55 percent of nuclear power plants in the United States are in the red and thus may face premature shutdown. If these closures come to pass, Porter stresses, the clean power they produce will likely be replaced with natural gas, which would lead to an increase in emissions -- about 200 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.

The nuclear vs. renewables thing remains a difficult conversation. Does talking about the limits of wind and solar turn off environmentalists and renewables enthusiasts? Or is it essential, given the popular and economic challenges facing nuclear power? How important are tone and phrasing when writing about nuclear and renewables? One of us (Alex) wrote a bit about this last year, but we’re still not sure the best way to go about it. Fortunately as we muddle through, bright observers like Boisvert, Porter, Jesse Jenkins, Alex Gilbert, and Gavin Bade give us plenty to chew on.

Of course, even nuclear may not be so hotly contested as the issue of innovation in biotech and agriculture. “With the possible exceptions of drones and robo-farm workers,” as Lauren Hepler of GreenBiz puts it, “GMOs are perhaps the quickest way to bring a conversation about the future of food to a grinding halt.” As we confront growing concerns regarding food security amidst population growth and climate change, Hepler notes, the debate around the genetic engineering of crops only intensifies.

And yet, genetic manipulation is also only one tool in the “smart farming” toolkit. With airborne imaging instruments, farm-management software, and robotic aids assisting with measurement, analysis, and even physical labor, precision agriculture has the potential to lower costs, increase yields, and reduce environmental degradation. The resistance to such technologies, especially when considering the impact they might have on the developing world, is, to use The Economist’s phrasing in its most recent Technology Quarterly edition, “unconscionable.”

So how do we de-escalate the conversation? One option would be to shift the narrative. According to Hepler, Julie Borlaug of Texas A&M has asked us to “please never use the term ‘genetic engineering’ again.” Another approach would be to focus on changes in the technologies themselves. For The Economist, the future of agriculture lies with advanced techniques such as genome editing and genomic selection. Both mimic the natural process of mutation (the former alters DNA at the level of the single genetic “letter,” while the latter facilitates cross-breeding through the identification of genetic markers) and should thus offer more palatable options to a public so resistant to transgenics.

As these sources indicate, widespread opposition to nuclear energy and genetic modification alike needs to be rethought. Collective recalibration of our biases and problematic preferences (including that for renewables) would enable these powerful technologies to more effectively source both clean energy and readily available food. The necessary tools are there for the taking, as soon as we’re ready for them. In the meantime -- we may simply need to follow the lead of all those electric Pokémon telling us to move in the direction of nuclear power plants.