Humans have been domesticating plants and animals for over 10,000 years, enabling our population to grow to over 7 billion people. Farmers around the world now face climate change and shifts in weather patterns that pose risks to their livelihoods and our food supplies.
Woteki, undersecretary for the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) research, education and economics mission area, also serves as the department’s chief scientist. (She also contributes to The Huffington Post sometimes.)
Our interview, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
What are we doing right in agriculture today?
We are producing enough food that we’ve actually made a big dent in the number of people who are hungry in this world. I think that’s one success that we should be celebrating at the same time we’re focusing the Sustainable Development Goals that have just been adopted globally to eliminate hunger over the next 15 years.
Is the issue getting the food to hungry people, as opposed to producing it?
It’s a combination of the two. Right now, we are producing enough food around the world to feed the population that we have. There are problems in distribution, there are problems in people not having enough money to get food, if it is available. There are also a lot of refugee crisis situations that we are dealing with around the world that are creating more hungry people. There are those kinds of problems that have to be solved.
But yes, to your question, we are producing enough food to feed the current population — but the population is projected to grow. From now until the mid-century, it is projected to increase to over 9 billion people, and then to continue growing after the mid-century.
Those extra 2-plus billion people, over the current population, are also going to need to be fed. Agriculture is going to have to produce fiber for their clothing, wood for housing.
Agriculture is being looked to to provide the chemical feedstocks to produce pharmaceuticals, to produce chemicals that go into industrial processes and, at the same time, produce clean water, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. There’s a huge agenda that remains to be done.
What approaches are not only promising but have been proven to do what you describe?
Genetics is one promising route. The kind of research that we’re supporting, and many other countries are also supporting, is looking to identify genes that are in plants and animals that may give resistance to diseases, that can cause crop failures or animal diseases, or are in crops that will be drought-resistant or resistant to higher temperatures that are associated with climate change.
Then, either using traditional breeding methods or using the newer genetic engineering technologies, [we can] produce new varieties of crops and improve the genetic makeup of food animals so that they’ll be resilient to climate change, because they’ll have within them these disease-resistant and pest-resistant traits, that they’ll need fewer chemicals and drugs to have an abundant production.
The kind of research that we’re doing on genetics gives me great hope that we’ll be able to increase agricultural production. One of the associated problems with that is that we’ve got a finite amount of farmable land. As we in the States are acutely aware right now, we’ve got water problems in the West.
Around the world, at some point in time, countries are also experiencing these severe weather events, droughts and restrictions on agriculture productions.
Some people may hear “genetics” and will instantly think of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. People worry about introducing modified variants of plants or insects into ecosystems, from “golden rice” to fish. Where does the science stand on potential risks and rewards?
I look at genetic engineering techniques that we have right now and the ones that we have in the pipeline, in addition to traditional plant and animal breeding, as being a tool. I think the tool is neutral, with respect to impact. How it’s used and how it’s applied it what makes the difference.
I also look at the first generation of genetically engineering crops and recognize that the kind of work we’re doing now, in supporting in our laboratories and supporting in universities, is using techniques that are quite different and quite evolved from the earlier techniques. A lot of the current public concern is still focused on that first generation.
How are we going to feed that 2.6 billion people with fewer inputs, like less water, less pesticide, and less fertilizer? We’re going to have to use what we’re learning about genetics to produce crops and livestock that are going to have inherent in them the ability to come through droughts.
If you look at aquaculture, where we’ve bioengineered fish, how do we think about the relative risk and reward of those fish being around wild populations? I’m thinking of the salmon pens I’ve kayaked past on the coast of Maine, for instance. There’s immediate impact and the long term impact of escaped fish on native species.
You’re making reference to the genetically engineered salmon that has been in the regulatory pipeline for over a decade. I know there’s been a lot research that has gone into the safety of that for people who would be eating the fish, as well as the safety for the environment. It’s an area that’s not research that I am directly involved in, and certainly at this point we are not the regulatory agency that’s the one with the direct responsibility.
I think that the Food and Drug Administration, which does have that regulatory responsibility, has been doing a really thorough job at looking at both food safety and environmental safety.
Moving back on to land, is part of our future mix of food going to be cricket burgers?
There are populations around the world that do look at insects being an important food source. There are also ways, though, that insects and insect larvae could be raised as a food source for an animal, for example, and that we might eat the meat from that animal. Insects and other foods that we in United States may not think about as being food for people, for other people in the world they are. It’s very culturally determined.
I’ve eaten my share of crabs and lobsters, and they don’t look so different. A bit bigger and tastier, perhaps.
Well, you know there is a crustacean in Australia that they call “bugs.” They do have very long legs. The name is kind of off-putting, but…
I’ve also heard lobsters called bugs or the “cockroaches of the sea,” too. It’s not the most appetizing name, but I think they’re tasty.
How close do you think we are to growing our food in laboratories, as opposed to more energy-intensive industrial farming techniques in use today?
So much about our food supply depends on the public. If there will be a demand for that type of product, I think it can be developed and delivered. I think a lot depends on the public, just as your earlier question about insects.
My suspicion is that within the next 50 years, we’ll see some kinds of protein become ultra-expensive or culturally tainted, and others become more accessible and acceptable, whether they’re plant-based, insect-based or laboratory-based.
We do know that the consumers respond to price.
Bugs and vat-grown meat aside, I’ve heard so much about precision agriculture here at the conference. Where was the science on this 10 years ago? Where are we now? What’s next?
I think it’s really interesting that precision medicine is just being talked about, but precision agriculture has been around for a long time and is actually being practiced. If we had the time, right now, we could go not too many miles away down the road here from Des Moines out on one of those fields that’s being harvested and you would see the most incredible precision agriculture in practice.
Farmers who have planted their fields with Global Positioning Systems, managed them all through the year with the fertilizer being delivered to those areas of the field where it was needed and not in others. Spraying being done for pests only in certain areas of the field, and not in others. At the harvest, they’re able to know, in a very small area of the field, what the yield is. And then, because of all of the records they had over the season, be able to make their plans for next year about how they’re going to better manage that field.
Precision agriculture is here, today. There are also companies here that are selling those service to farmers. Some are even selling crop insurance to go along with it.
There is also a lot of work going on with unmanned vehicles — what some people call drones – with applications for how to better scout the fields through the course of the growing season.
We’re doing work with NASA and NOAA, using satellites, and getting much better information from satellites about crop conditions, soil moisture, and using remote sensing, and then providing that information back to farmers.
In a way that’s actionable for them to respond in a timely way?
What changes are you seeing that could change the world the most in the next 10 years? What concerns you the most?
The changes that give me great confidence that we’ll be able to increase agricultural productivity, particularly in areas of the world where there are food shortages now, like in sub-Saharan Africa and certain parts of Asia and Latin America are the application of these new technologies.
Regarding the theme we’re going to be talking about — open data for agriculture — I have visited farmers in remote areas of Africa and Asia where they have cellphones and applications that can deliver information to them about markets in which they can bring their crops to, about disease threats, about weather events, that can help them better manage their farms.
These are already technologies within our grasp that are already applications that are being delivered in developing countries. That gives me great hope. Better seeds, higher-producing seeds, that can be delivered to smaller-holder farmers to improve their productivity, give me great hope.
As to your question about concerns, I think one of our greatest concerns is more variable weather. We are experiencing here in the states, as well as around the world, much more variable weather patterns. Farmers here in the U.S. can tell you that their planting dates have changed, that they’re planting earlier. They can also tell you that they’ve had floods or tornados or rain that’s occurred too early or too late, not the usual seasonal patterns. They’re experiencing more extreme weather and changes in weather that affect their ability to produce.
Over this next decade and the decades to come, being able to develop varieties of crops that are more resilient to drought, temperature and other weather events is going to be a big challenge for us, but one that I also think there is a good likelihood that we’ll be able to deliver for the farmers.
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