Thursday, 30 August 2012

The challenge

Our agricultural system is facing many challenges and in the coming decades will have to change significantly. It can't have escaped your attention that before long there will be 9 billion people on the planet, who will each eat more than an average person today. Filling all those bellies without destroying the planet in the process is going to be difficult! To make matters worse, as oil becomes more scarce and expensive, agriculture will have to step up and produce more non-food crops such as timber, cotton and biofuel. With climate change thrown in to the mix, it's not surprising that the situation has been described as 'a perfect storm'. The wheat price over the last 30 years demonstrates this isn't just hype:

Admittedly, the graph is not adjusted for inflation, but as The Economist note food prices are rising in real terms for the first time in decades.

To give you some idea of the scale of the challenge this 2010 paper with 54 authors identified one hundred questions of importance to the future of global agriculture. Each of these opens a Pandora's box of further questions, many of which are beyond the scope of my interests and so will be ignored. While the social aspects of agriculture cannot be ignored, I am both more interested, and more qualified to discuss the scientific aspects.

I'm currently studying for a PhD in potato agronomy, but my interests are much broader than this relatively specialised field and in this blog I want to discuss the bigger picture. Here I will float ideas for how we can use science to improve agriculture. In this post, I will set out what challenges our current systems faces and use this as a framework for my future posts.

Having spent six months in Rwanda in 2011 (covered in Cafe Mzungu) and now spent a year learning about potato farming in the UK, I've seen first hand the two extremes of global agriculture. You don't need to be an expert to spot the difference:

Neither of these systems can remain as they are today. In the developed world our food production is industrialised and most of us are completely detached from food production. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and indeed moving away from the land allowed us to do so much else with our time. There is a problem however when food production is overly reliant on unsustainable inputs which also damage the environment. At the other end of the spectrum, billions live in poverty toiling daily just to subsist. Agricultural development is the first step in improving livelihoods – once people produce a surplus they can afford to send their children to school and invest in their land. Currently there is a lack of access to mechanisation, quality seeds and fertiliser, as well as knowledge of how to farm efficiently.

Fundamentally the factors which limit agricultural productivity are land, nutrients, water, pests and disease. These are all in part influenced by the genetics of the crop, but also by the environment in which it is cultivated. I will try to tackle both these aspects in my posts. The importance of the weather can't be ignored as the current drought in the USA demonstrates, but since there is little we can do to improve it other than decrease greenhouse gas emissions, I will largely ignore it.

Ultimately, I'm interested in sustainable intensification – producing more with less. Some people think this an oxymoron but hopefully they can be proven wrong. Genetically modified crops and organic agriculture are often thought of as polar opposites, but I don't subscribe to this view and think that combining the two will be essential. I disagree with many of the ways that both of these systems operate in the developed world at present, but the potential of using them together to reduce inputs and increase yields is huge. It would be better to integrate the best parts of both rather than having two systems moving in opposite directions as is occurring today. GM can provide intensification, while organic principles can help to create a more sustainable system. Some things I'll cover along the way are how to turn shit into gold and how crops can kill weeds. Eventually I'll try to tie everything together to produce my 'farm for the future'.

Finally, just to explain the name – I decided on 'farming geek' a while back after seeing how 'geeks' managed to completely win the argument with anti-GM protesters who were trying to destroy an experiment at Rothamsted. The 'geek' part originally came from Mark Henderson's Geek Manifesto.


  1. interesting points farm geek :),
    but there are a few paradoxes....

    The earth population rose thanks to technology, then the new problem is the population rising, so let's use more intelligent technology to sustain its growth. Then we will need even more energy, food so let's use more technology and so on and so forth.

    so overall, i don't see why being more and more and more is either good or a problem. One could say stop extracting more resources and the population may stop growing.

    i also understand that there are all sort of evils related to more people sharing the same resources (wars etc), but i also feel that political and economic inequality are important. Would things count differently if the rich wouldn't be so rich and would not be given the chance to become ultra-rich?

    so to close my view on this bit, the problem is also political.
    So I think we d be better off to fight, war and protest against each other till we find a better sociopolitical equilibrium. Climate change may have been accelerated by human technology after all, so instead of having this as primary example to make us think about our role on this planet, do we say 'let's use more technology, be more intelligent to sort our complex situation out'? But isn't this way of thinking that brought us in this mess?

    Food prices are going up? Looking at the graph it seems that there is a correlation between financial crisis and food prices (no surprise here). What is surprising here is that there is no mention on what is this economic crisis about. And what if it get's worse and food prices go up faster? Shall we start producing GM like crazy then? Maybe we would also GM ourselves to be able to survive with less food and more disease.
    I admit i know very little about GM but i feel that it adds more complexity into an already complex game.

    Overall, i think we should take one step back and stick to the basics to answer those questions. How many we are? How much energy we need to survive and carry on our lives per individuals? Then answer the question, is there enough?

    Even GM and technology will facilitate eventually dealing with these problems, they will not give a perfect solution so the political and social inquest cannot be forgotten just because we are geeks :).

    1. Hey. Thanks for the comment!

      I understand what you mean about technology fuelling population increases which in turn requires more technology. My view though is that any situation that would dramatically reduce population (by which I mean in the order of billions) would be extremely detrimental to all of us. Bearing that in mind, we HAVE to keep on producing more and more food. It's fairly well established that the best way to reduce the birth rate is to educate women, but this can't happen unless parents have the money to send their children to school. That will only happen if they have the ability to farm productively.

      It's indisputable that technology improves out lives, even if it has other negative consequences. We need to understand how to improve technologically while reducing the unforeseen consequences. Reducing the technology we use to farm would be disastrous as yields would crash, so for now at least we're stuck with the way we do things.

      In my opinion, both the increases in food prices and the financial crisis are consequences of $100 barrels of oil. I've read reports (can't remember where now) that concluded that speculation in food markets was a minor consequence of food price increases. Expensive oil (due to increasing scarcity) massively increased input prices and at the same time made biofuels economically attractive and necessary.

      There is certainly enough for all of us to survive - theoretically, we could produce enough food for one trillion humans - see

      Stay reading the blog and I'll hopefully be able to explain what GM is and why it's needed!

    2. Thanks for your response Simon,

      I will be waiting for your updates on GM then.

      In the meantime, I believe that you are ignoring politics in this story and the potential of human intervention to solve a lot a of our problems. So yes, technology indeed improves our lives (in general) but we should, perhaps, focus more on our understanding, control and use of it. Technology has many times put our kind in the brick of collapse and we should not forget this. We cannot afford to be naive with it.

      Please do not forget that technology ( is not only a scientific or mechanically incarnated form of knowledge. Spiritually, meditation, plants and philosophical thinking are very well known methods for improving our ability to understand the world and face problems. We then should look for a balanced use and understanding of technology and not a monolithic one that is based solely on scientific reductionism and the power of the machine: the latter could and has already put us in a lot of trouble.


    3. Well yes, I am ignoring politics for now - I'm more interested in facts and evidence which our politicians are not.

      Technologies can be used for both good and bad. Take the Haber process that I mention in my next post - we use it to produce fertiliers but also explosives. Society has to decide how technologies are used, but it's up to scientists and engineers to come up with the options for society to choose from. Hopefully you'll agree that technology has been a net benefit (without it we wouldn't be discussing this) but you're right that we're naive to think that technology is the only answer to our problems. I hope an underlying theme of this blog will be about how to apply technology sensibly, making use of ancient technologies while exploring possible future technologies.

      I completely agree that we need to move away from reductionism and mechanical philosophy, but unfortunately they are deeply ingrained in our culture. Hopefully this will change.

    4. I agree with you ... but just to clarify that by political decision making i do not mean party politics but more our political engagement to fix the world! which may involve kicking out the current political elite :)