How much outside the box should we think?

A month ago, I attended a fascinating and very unique innovation and tech conference in Brisbane: Myriad. I was impressed by the many energetic and passion-driven people I met there. I was also stunned by the diversity of wild cutting-edge ideas, projects and business models that were presented (floating cities, flying cars, AI, virtual reality, to name a few). I came away from it brimming with excitement – how amazing it is to see so many initiatives emerging worldwide that focus on ensuring a better future for our planet and its people. I also reflected on that experience in relation to my work: how much outside the box should we think in agricultural research? It feels like there have already been many innovations in the agricultural field and yet, we still struggle to feed our planet in a sustainable and equitable way. Are high-tech, robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, cultured meat, farms in shipping containers and blockchains the future of food?  

Myriad

Our growing human population, together with shifting dietary preferences, changing economies and climate change, have placed considerable pressures on food security, our land, and the climate. Our human population has more than doubled over the last 50 years and we expect an extra 2.4 billion people by 2050. However, our planet is still the same size and the lack of space and resources are becoming more and more apparent. We are over the humanity safe operating space for four of the nine planetary boundaries that regulate the stability of the Earth1. In 25 years, we have lost 129 million hectares of forest around the world2. Global fish populations, essential for food and jobs, have crashed by 50% in the last four decades3 and 815 million people go to bed hungry every night4. In the face of such challenges, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement set the world’s commitment to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure health and prosperity for all. Food is central to achieving this agenda, as it lies at the heart of most of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals and is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Progress in the direction of these targets has been nothing short of remarkable over the last 50 years. Global food supply has increased almost threefold. US cow milk productivity rocketed from 2,074 to 9,193 kg per animal per year between 1944 and 2007, allowing the country to produce 1.6 times more milk with almost 40% less cows5. Nearly all African countries demonstrated improvements in children’s nutrition in recent years6. While expanding food supply was generally considered as a 20th Century problem that had been resolved by the Green Revolution7, the food price shocks of 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 – a three to sixfold increase in prices of selected commodities8 – revived interest in global food security challenges.

Research has shown that there is still room for farm sustainability and productivity improvements in Australian and overseas, which is good news in view of our growing human population9–13. However, the more that advances are made in agricultural research, the more questions are posed: are our actions enough? Are our actions fast enough? We are facing challenges of unprecedented significance, and their nature is changing at accelerating rates. Humanity is at a crossroads and we are running out of time14.

The Green Revolution and its sowing of monocultures of cereals for as far as the eye can see is now obsolete, replaced by objectives of sustainability, health and nutrition beyond kilocalories. Signs of crop yield stagnations are observed in many developed countries. Australia’s average wheat yields, which had more than tripled due to technological advances between 1900 and 1990,  have not increased since then15. More than one half of the world population now lives in urban areas and farming is becoming less attractive to new generations16.  Available land for food production is also becoming scarce as it is competing with biofuel production, urban areas, forest plantations and natural ecosystems. Climate change also adds a level of complexity and uncertainty to this tangled situation17,18.

How much outside the box should agricultural research think to ensure a sustainable and equitable food future? Are high-tech, robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, cultured meat, farms in shipping containers and blockchains the future of food? Considering the significance of our global challenges, we have the responsibility to deeply challenge our current actions and thinking structures, delve into the unknown, the controversial, the untapped disruptive possibilities – as insane as they may sound – and assess their viability and scalability. In the meantime, we should keep celebrating successful “low-tech” and hands-on solutions that are already in place.

While technological breakthroughs will continue to deliver significant productivity gains, the real measure of success in achieving food security sustainably will be our ability to have well designed systems. Transformative agricultural systems will better integrate technologies, processes and skills, will maximise connectivity, synergies and recycling, as well as will minimise negative environmental impacts. People are central to the design of our food future. As such, we need to foster an environment that encourages our emotional connection to Nature and food, our collaborations and creativity as well as one that embraces our failures and diversity of thoughts. Indeed, these are key characteristics that technological advancements will never replace.

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  1. Steffen, W. et al. Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science (80-. ). 347, (2015).
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. FAOstat. (2018). Available at: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/.
  3. Living Planet Report 2016. (2016).
  4. Development Initiatives. Global Nutrition Report 2017: Nourishing the SDGs. (2017).
  5. Capper, J. L., Cady, R. A. & Bauman, D. E. The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007. J. Anim. Sci. 87, 2160–2167 (2009).
  6. Osgood-Zimmerman, A. et al. Mapping child growth failure in Africa between 2000 and 2015. Nature 555, 41–47 (2018).
  7. Hazell, P. & Ramasamy, C. The green revolution reconsidered. 18, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).
  8. Mitchell, D. A note on rising food prices. (2008).
  9. Mayberry, D. et al. Yield gap analyses to estimate attainable bovine milk yields and evaluate options to increase production in Ethiopia and India. Agric. Syst. 155, 43–51 (2017).
  10. Henderson, B. et al. Closing system-wide yield gaps to increase food production and mitigate GHGs among mixed crop-livestock smallholders in Sub-Saharan Africa. Agric. Syst. 143, 106–113 (2015).
  11. Henderson, B. et al. The power and pain of market-based carbon policies : a global application to greenhouse gases from ruminant livestock production. Mitig. Adapt. Strateg. Glob. Chang. (2017). doi:10.1007/s11027-017-9737-0
  12. Herrero, M. et al. Understanding Livestock Yield Gaps for Poverty Alleviation , Food Security and the Environment. (2016).
  13. Mayberry, D. et al. Quantifying the scale of livestock yield gaps in India and identifying opportunities for investment. in 31st Biennial Conference of the Australian Society of Animal Production 3–4 (2016).
  14. Ripple, W. J. et al. World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. Bioscience XX, 1–9 (2017).
  15. Hochman, Z., Gobbett, D. L. & Horan, H. Climate trends account for stalled wheat yields in Australia since 1990. Glob. Chang. Biol. 23, 2071–2081 (2017).
  16. United Nations. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision. (2018).
  17. Sloat, L. L. et al. Increasing importance of precipitation variability on global livestock grazing lands. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2018).
  18. Godde, C., Garnett, T., Thornton, P., Ash, A. & Herrero, M. Grazing systems expansion and intensification: Drivers, dynamics, and trade-offs. Glob. Food Sec. 16, 93–105 (2017).

With great editing support from Mick Hartcher

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