Agronomically Speaking, Have We Outgrown the Planet?

Agronomists found a way to grow enough calories to feed the burgeoning population, but it was done with little regard for nutrition or the impact on the planet.

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Humanity has done a number of remarkable things in the 200,000 or so years since the first of our species was born. Two defining acts of note: First we grew, reproduced and made more humans, and then, as we reached the limits of our planet, we grew the resource base of our planet.

Agronomists found a way to grow enough calories to feed the burgeoning population, but it was done with little regard for nutrition or the impact on the planet. Today, as we face the consequences of our unchecked damage, can agronomists save us again?

At nearly 8 billion and growing, humanity doesn't have a lot of space left — at least in a philosophical sense. Sure, there are still areas of the planet where you can throw a rock and not hit anyone; but that's a function of our species' weird distribution. At first, we were spread out, chasing animals that were bound to the distributed resources of our planet. Then we hacked the system, and we called this first great hack "agriculture."

Agriculture started a population explosion and specialization that led to the birth of cities. Cities were humble at first, but within a few millennia grew to hundreds of thousands, then millions, and now, tens of millions of people. As cities grew, they demanded more of the land — more output to support the hungry mouths of a world carrying millions more.

Taking our planet from one that could carry a few million hunters-gatherers and terraforming it into a world that increasingly catered to the needs of a single species launched a game of cat and mouse between a ballooning population and an increasingly antagonistic global ecosystem. Leading this war against nature was and always has been the farmers and agronomists — both the heroes and the enablers.

To be fair, we've come up short from time to time. Concentrated populations in cities and regions became their own miniature ecosystems in a bottle, and occasionally the resources of that region would run out and there would be a "correction." Corrections are a sterilized term for death, destruction, misery — the kinds of hell that many modern people cannot remember or even comprehend. As late as the 1970s, the death of millions due to starvation in regions like India was still commonplace.

Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution

Two critical things changed that saved the lives of millions of people and propelled humanity on a calorie-fueled growth binge. First, the green revolution brought consistent, high-yielding agriculture to the planet, and second, globalization enabled the flow of goods (fertilizer, technology, information, food) from areas of supply to areas of demand, regardless of where those areas were.

The green revolution is a funny term — it connotes violent overthrow and rebellion against tyranny. To be fair, that is what it was. With the green revolution, humanity threw off the tyrannical constraints that nature places on her subject species and leaped ahead. Norman Borlaug gets a lot of the credit. A maverick breeder, he went against the grain to pioneer the rapid development of modern, high-yielding wheat, with tactics and an approach that quickly brought high-yielding cereal grains to the world, saving millions of lives and enabling billions more.

The green revolution grew into a new world order — the trade of food across thousands of miles, with calories so abundant they became almost worthless. It birthed the megacities of the 20th and 21st centuries, unconstrained by food supply or proximity to farmland. It saved countless lives, but it also unleashed an epidemic of dietary diseases as humanity grappled with an era of cheap, easy calories.

The green revolution also gave birth to global supply chains trading food across thousands of miles with billions of lives hanging in its balance. It brought with it a campaign of environmental destruction measured in millions of acres of forests destroyed, prairies plowed up and gigatons of CO2 dumped into an already warming atmosphere. It may very well be the crowning act of the Anthropocene.

A New World Order

Today we are once again faced with a do-or-die scenario. The last great leap forward solved for calories, yield and scale. This great leap forward will demand that we continue to solve for yield, while also better addressing nutritional needs and sustainability. We must create a climate change-resistant and reversing system, a system that is less extractive and opens the doors to a sustainable future of growth for humanity and the restoration of our world.

The conditions for this next act are dire. Farmland is disappearing at record rates, even as we cut down the Amazon. Freshwater is more scarce than ever before, and variable weather is taking its toll. It is time to break agriculture free of these resources, to grow the food supply even as we use less water, fossil fuels and carbon to do so. It is time to manufacture land in ways and areas that preserve what we have left.

That means that for those of us in agtech, the next move is on us. Together, we have to move agriculture indoors. This next act will require all of the cleverness of the agronomists of the past, the motivation of people with the memory of famine, and the wisdom of ecologists, naturalists and those who know that our long-term survival can never be divorced from that of our planet. This is a story that deserves some thought and attention. It is the story of our past, our present and the future of our species.

In my next few articles, I will dive deeper into what is working, what needs to change and whether technology has the power today to address the needs of tomorrow.

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