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.