Technology needed to meet climate change and food security challenges, experts say

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

May 24, 2019

More technological innovation is needed in agriculture to help combat climate change and ensure sustainability of world food production, according to experts at the Alltech Ideas Conference.

“There has to be a way to digitize farms,” said science writer Ramez Naam, co-chair of energy and environment systems at Singularity University. “[We need] better seeds, smarter practices, more precise farming with inputs, better animal nutrition, better monitoring of yields. All of these would allow us to grow more food with the same land and less water.”

Such innovations are critically needed to support agriculture at a time when the world’s population is increasing, but natural resources like land and water remain limited.

The introduction of technology and innovation is reducing the impact of agriculture on the environment already, but more needs to be done, Naam said, noting that yield per acre for corn and other crops has nearly tripled over the last 70 years. “It’s happening with every crop. And that means we are sparing land. Because worldwide, the land use to feed each person has dropped by about half since the 1960s. We are doing more with less or the same.”

Naam particularly wants to place farmers at the center of efforts to transform agriculture and save the planet, noting they are critical players in such a scenario. “When you look at climate reports, agriculture is considered to be a quarter of the driver of climate change, mostly from livestock and deforestation and land use change,” he said. “But what if farmers could be heroes? What if agriculture can help us beat climate change?”

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California–Davis, agreed that farmers have a key role to play in helping to preserve the planet. When it comes to combating climate change, he told the conference, “agriculture and farmers are the solution, not the problem.”

He pointed out that fossil fuel use is driving climate change far more than agriculture, producing 11 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, while US agriculture produces only 1.1 percent.

Agricultural productivity is helping reduce further the impact of agriculture on climate change, he said. Though the US had 140 million head of beef in 1940, that number is down to 90 million today, resulting in a substantial decrease in carbon emissions.

“Notably, however, the same amount of beef (24 million tons) was produced in both 1970 and 2010, meaning that, over the years, we have begun accomplishing the same amount of beef with fewer cattle,” he explained. “This is thanks to improved fertility, health and genetics… we should focus on better and more efficient livestock health rather than on livestock elimination.”

World food production needs to increase by 60 to 80 percent by 2050 to feed a population that is expected to increase from 7 billion to almost 10 billion during that time. Meanwhile, fresh water resources and arable lands are being quickly diminished. More than 25 percent of the world’s agricultural lands are already depleted, and more than 80 percent of the existing forests have already been destroyed, experts pointed out.

Naam, a professional future technologist, said fresh ideas are needed to ensure future food security and a healthy planet. “Our planet is finite, but our ability to innovate is infinite,” he said. “And the right idea, the right technology, the right experiences can increase the value of the land and increase how much food we grow per acre and per drop of water. The right technology and right idea can substitute for scarce resources. It can make all of us better off. Ideas are that one natural resource that we always have more of over time, and not less.”

Experts noted, however, that new technological innovations for agriculture cannot be handled with a one size fit all approach. They must be inspired “bottom up,” taking into consideration local needs, traditions and community structures.

“If we try and transplant western or USA/European-style agriculture technology into Africa, it’s not going to work,” said Robert Walker, Alltech’s European business development officer. “We need to re-imagine a whole new way of doing agriculture if we want to do it properly.”