Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have been converting forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems to farmland. While climate change, air and water pollution, and a range of other environmental challenges frequently get the headlines, food production without question represents the single largest human impact upon the environment. Land for crops takes up 12% of Earth’s ice-free land. Add pasture and that percentage climbs to 36%. The long-term conversion of land for agriculture has brought enormous losses to ecosystems and wildlife populations already. The climate impacts are also considerable—15% of global greenhouse emissions come from the agricultural sector. With global food demand expected to grow as much as 70% by 2050, those impacts threaten to grow substantially.
But there are other possible futures for global agriculture and the environment that are just beginning to come into view. Radical changes to food and farming systems over the last century have improved yields, made crops more resilient to weather and pests, and increasingly concentrated farming in the most productive regions and on the most productive lands. Already, in parts of the United States, Western Europe, China, and Brazil, high-productivity farming is beginning to return some land to nature. With continuing agricultural modernization and technological innovation, human societies might pass through a critical inflection point in this century, returning agricultural lands to nature in the global aggregate for the first time in ten millennia.
Achieving that future will require serious reconsideration of many of the ideas that sustainable food advocates have promoted in recent decades. Contemporary debates about the sustainability of food and agriculture have been dominated by romantic ideas about farming that are impractical at best and pernicious at worst. Despite the fact that nineteenth-century farming struggled to feed a global population of less than two billion, a global food movement centered in the wealthier precincts of the United States and Europe has in recent decades loudly championed a utopian version of that system as the key to feeding a twenty-first-century population that has already exceeded seven billion.
In reality, any significant return to low-intensity, small-scale, organic agriculture would bring with it environmental consequences the food movement has not seriously considered. Organic's dramatically reduced yields would threaten our ability to maintain food production, while the decreased efficiency would also require massively larger land areas for farming, increasing the existing pressure on forests and wildlife habitat.
And yet, the food movement has successfully captured the public imagination because it has offered a utopian vision of food and farming to an urban, upscale, and increasingly affluent population that is now several generations removed from life on the farm. What is at stake is not so much the possibility that global agriculture might begin to revert to low-intensity, lower-yielding farming. The kind of farming the food movement advocates simply can’t be implemented on any significant scale. Rather, what is lost in the bellicose debates about GMOs, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizer is a constructive conversation, much less any pragmatic vision, about what kind of food systems can practically bring the best outcomes for both people and the environment.
This month, Breakthrough will launch a six-part series on the future of food in hopes of empirically regrounding the conversation about food, agriculture, and sustainability. Reviewing the best science available, we’ll consider the consequences and trade-offs associated with different food systems and the possibilities that continuing social and technological innovation could open up for a food system that might sit more lightly on the land.
The first essay in that series, by Breakthrough Institute’s Director of Conservation Linus Blomqvist and Applied Invention’s David Douglas, considers the possibilities for precision agriculture. Much of the conversation around improving agricultural yields, they write, has focused too much on biotechnology, which is important but insufficient, and “Green Revolution”-style application of fertilizers and irrigation, which have largely run their course in the developed world.
Better seeds, fertilizer, and pest control will continue to be important to a more productive and sustainable food system in the decades to come. But the key to raising yields while limiting environmental impacts will be using those inputs with ever greater control and precision. Combinations of technologies that provide plants with fertilizer when they need it and not when they don’t, control pests while minimizing impacts on soil health and beneficial insects, and pack more plants onto every acre of land will be the key to allowing agricultural yields to keep up with growing food demand.
Precision agriculture includes practices and techniques that monitor plant needs and nutrition closely via next-generation tractors, sensors, and satellites, and apply water, fertilizer, and pest control in a hyper-precise manner. Implemented optimally, these techniques can improve yields, reduce inputs, and minimize pollution. Understood in this way, precision agriculture should take us beyond the arbitrary distinctions between organic and conventional agriculture and challenge us to both evaluate agricultural technologies practice by practice and technology by technology, and consider the trade-offs holistically.
In the coming weeks, we’ll also look at fertilizer, meat production, agriculture’s impact on wildlife, and other issues. We’ve tried to conduct a broad survey of the evidence and literatures associated with each of these topics, but we’ll also invite responses and perspectives from leading figures in the field. Feeding a world of nine billion people while minimizing impacts on wildlife, ecosystems, and the climate will require that we take a hard look at how food is really produced and what the trade-offs between land, productivity, inputs, and pollution really are. It will also require understanding agricultural systems in the broader context of human development and modernization.
Food production today would be unrecognizable to farmers from 1900, let alone early Holocene agriculturalists. So who knows what global agriculture will look like a hundred years from now. But while we can’t predict the future, we can identify the characteristics of a global food system that might be capable of meeting human needs while leaving more room for nature, and we can begin to prioritize food systems and agricultural technologies that take us in that direction. Doing so will require first that we get clear about what matters for people and what matters for the environment when it comes to food and agriculture. This series was created in hopes of helping to advance that conversation.