16 February 2012

Can We Prevent a Food Crisis while Preserving Biodiversity?

Nina Fedoroff

To feed a crowded planet and avoid further loss of species, Nina Fedoroff, professor of biology at Penn State University and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), argues for more focus on biotechnology and controlled environment agriculture. 

"Time is not on our side," she said in a keynote address at a research reports and retreat in Tucson, Ariz., hosted Aug. 19 by The University of Arizona's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.

Thomas Malthus reasoned in 1798 that exponential population growth would eventually bring on worldwide famine and devastation, but he couldn’t have foreseen the advent of the most sophisticated agricultural production in human history. If he’d had a crystal ball, he would have witnessed plant science take hold—the introduction of post-Mendelian breeding practices, mechanization, intensive propagation and chemical fertilization.
These technologies among others and the expansion of agriculture making use of arable land across the globe, has permitted a tripling of the world’s population since Malthus’s time. However, this remarkable story of modern agriculture hasn’t been all good news.
Modern agriculture, Fedoroff said, has led to the boundless human encroachment into wild areas followed by deforestation and replacement with agricultural monocultures that has caused the catastrophic loss of species and ecological systems. In addition, the loss is not confined to land. Continued intensive use of fertilizers has led to eutrophication, or runoff into lakes and oceans creating dead zones, areas where feasting phytoplankton suffocate all other kinds of marine life.

She notes that if it hadn’t been for the Green Revolution, the situation may have even been worse. The revolution introduced technology and high-yield crops to third-world countries like India, Mexico, and Africa mid-century. Fedoroff told me that, indeed, the revolution is largely credited for not only providing food to millions, but also saving species like the tiger from extinction. 

As the world’s population passes seven billion and with predictions of world population reaching nine billion by 2050, the pressure is on for another revolution to feed the hungry mouths of the world’s future. Bring on the threats of biofuels, increasing water scarcity, and climate change driving up food prices and a Malthusian nightmare appears ever nearer.

What’s more is that "the amount of arable land hasn’t changed for more than half a century," Fedoroff warned. "This means that the amount of arable land per person will decrease by half."

When asked if it possible to double the food supply while preserving what’s left of biodiversity, Fedoroff responded by noting that this seemingly impossible feat depends on reducing agriculture’s ecological footprint while simultaneously adapting crops to a hotter, drier world. And there is hope.

"In the nick of time, we've had another revolution in the 20th century," Fedoroff said. "It's the molecular revolution."

The molecular revolution involves genetic engineering, the topic of Fedoroff's recent editorial in the New York Times. In it she blasts the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for overregulation of genetically modified crops. The focus of EPA’s regulation is ironically in part to protect biodiversity from relative risks of cross-pollination and new “gene-flow” in the environment.

On the contrary, Fedoroff argued, genetic engineering is a natural consequence to plant breeding and its crops are among the most well studied for human and environmental safety. They also offer the clearest way to avoiding more destruction to what’s left of biodiversity.

"We've come to regulate these modifications as if they're dangerous," Fedoroff said. "The evidence is pretty clear now that there isn’t any damaging or particular risks that are new."

Genetically engineered crops can protect the environment are two-fold, Fedoroff told me: First, because crops genetically engineered to produce more food reduces habitat destruction; and second, because crops genetically engineered to be pest- and disease-resistant reduce overall pesticide and herbicide use, which harm biodiversity by killing both harmful and beneficial insects and plants. 

Apart from genetically engineering, Fedoroff also said that it’s time to consider new methods to maximize crop yields. For example, Fertigation is a combination of irrigation and fertilization using a drip system with pressurized hoses underground that can preserve water. In addition, rooftop greenhouses using hydroponics or aquaponics or controlled environment agriculture facilities have a yield per unit area per year that can range anywhere between five to 10 times what can be produced on a conventional field.

"I think we need to think of new ways. We need to think of the entire system. We have to think about the water, the energy, and the land," Fedoroff said.

One of a growing number of urban facilities to make use of controlled environment agriculture is Lufa Farms of Montreal, which a family member introduced to Fedoroff. The high-tech urban gardening company is sealed to exclude insects and decrease chemical use. It is covered in photovoltaic panels, for continual light and recirculates all its water.

"It's a pretty high tech, high intensity facility, and it grows lovely vegetables," she said. "What it does that I think is extremely important to be mindful of is it brings agriculture back to the city. We've separated it. It's important psychologically and brings the value."

Will the EPA cooperate and put measures in place to encourage agricultural productivity through a combination of genetic engineering and controlled environment agriculture? Only time will tell, and, according to Fedoroff, it's time we need and don't have.

Note: This article was written August 2011, but was never published. 

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