Agriculture's Sustainable Future: Breeding Better Crops
Modern technologies can increase crop yields and reduce agriculture's environmental impact
We are not going back to the pleistocene age of the hunter-gatherers. Instead experts indicate that the world’s population will increase from approximately six billion to nine billion by 2050—all to be fed, clothed and even fueled by agricultural products. What’s more, as people rise out of poverty, higher living standards such as greater meat consumption and personal mobility will place even more demand on food crop production (wheat, rice), animal feed (corn, soybeans), fiber (wood, cotton) and fuels (sugarcane, switchgrass). How can agriculture’s output expand so dramatically without significantly increasing its environmental footprint, especially reckless deforestation to clear land for farming? Like contemplating office space in Manhattan, we must find a way to grow vertically, by increasing crop yields.
Agriculture is not natural; it is a human invention. It is also the basis of modern civilization. Yet agriculture is not uniform in its practices or productivity: some 40 percent of the world’s corn farmers still use nonhybrid, open-pollinated varieties that the U.S. abandoned decades ago, and their yields are far, far lower than what could be achieved with modern seed varieties. Nor is agriculture static. Yield increases through improved genetics are accelerating in crops that receive intense private research funding, such as corn, but are languishing in cassava and other important staples for the developing world, which get little or no support. Agriculture has significant ecological consequences, too: displaced forests and grasslands, greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizers and diesel-fueled farm machinery, and algae blooms from excess nutrient runoff. Clearly, there is much to improve on.
Modern humans emerged some 250,000 years ago, yet agriculture is a fairly recent invention, only about 10,000 years old. Many crop plants are rather new additions to our diet; broccoli—a flowering mutant of kale—is thought to be only 500 years old. Most innovation is far more recent still. Although Austrian monk Gregor Mendel’s pea plant experiments quietly laid the basic foundations of genetics in the mid-19th century, his work was rediscovered and applied to crop breeding only at the beginning of the 20th century. Mendel demonstrated that plant traits were inherited and not acquired from the environment, which meant that crossing two plants with different characteristics could create a plant with potentially improved traits.