“In many ways, there’s nothing we do that has a bigger, more negative impact on the planet than agriculture, and yet, there’s nothing more critical for our daily survival,” said Jack Bobo. “The challenge we have is how to maintain and grow the benefits while reducing all those negatives.”
Bobo, chief communications officer at Intrexon, is very optimistic about the ability of scientific and technological advances in agriculture to reduce those negative impacts even as the population surpasses 9 billion.
Agriculture’s impact on land and water
Currently, agriculture takes up about 40% of the Earth’s land area. The total amount of cropland is roughly equivalent to the landmass of South America. Pasture takes up about the same area as Africa.
As agriculture demands more land, the inevitable result is deforestation, with agriculture and deforestation combined responsible for 25% of our greenhouse gas production.
Agriculture’s water consumption is an even more serious problem. Nearly 70% of the Earth’s freshwater is used for agriculture. Lakes across the world are being depleted, and the Colorado River no longer flows to the ocean. Some of our most important aquifers are being drawn down past the point of recovery.
Ag-tech: Savior of a hungry, malnourished and growing world?
With so many resources going to agriculture, how is it possible that people still go to bed hungry?
According to Bobo, 9 million people die from hunger and malnutrition each year, far more than any other cause. That means that 25,000 people die each day from hunger and malnutrition. And we will need to produce 60% to 100% more food by 2050.
So, why is Jack Bobo optimistic? Because agricultural technology has made incredible improvements in the last few decades.
We are producing more food with fewer resources than ever before. Bobo compared corn production inputs per bushel for 1980 and 2011. The improvement was striking:
- 40% less land
- 60% less erosion
- 50% less water
- 40% less energy
- 35% fewer greenhouse gases
It seems the ability to produce more food with fewer resources should make everyone optimistic about the future of agriculture. Clearly, that isn’t the case. According to Bobo, “consumers have never cared more, nor known less, how their food was produced.”
Farmers make up roughly 2% of the U.S. population. Consequently, very few people even know a farmer today, and they have very little knowledge of how their food is actually grown.
“If people don’t understand your industry, then it’s up to you to change that,” said Bobo.
Some food companies actually compound the problem by using outdated imagery of very small farms to market their products. Or, some will market to misperceptions because it is more in their interest to cater to that belief than to eradicate it.
Distrust of agricultural science and technology can result in regulations that will make it difficult to meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion by 2050.
It’s important, according to Bobo, that scientists work to gain people’s trust by telling their stories and explaining why they do what they do instead of just presenting the science.
“If people don’t trust you, the science doesn’t matter,” said Bobo.