Greener than green: Biotech and the future of agriculture (Part I)

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The following is excerpted from The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet by Ramez Naam.

Ramez Naam, a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a world-renowned futurist, is a provocative thinker. A former Microsoft executive and former CEO of Apex Nanotechnologies, a nanotech startup, he has turned his incisive mind towards addressing the challenge of our times: how can our growing global population survive the stark reality of dwindling resources. As Harvard University’s Stephen Pinker has written, his new book— The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet—not only contains a plan, it may be the only plan to save the world. Here in the first of a two part series presented exclusively at the Genetic Literacy Project, Naam addresses the promise and paradox of organic and conventional agriculture and the role that advanced biotechnology may play in the years ahead.

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In the next 40 years, the demand for food around the world is expected to rise by 70%, with much of that being demand for more meat and dairy products.  At the same time, extreme weather, with droughts, floods, and heat waves, is likely to become more intense.   And we must reduce the environmental damage that agriculture accounts for.

We face not just one challenge with agriculture, but four:  How do we grow 70% more food?  How do we do so in the face of climate risks?  How do we do so without chopping down the rest of the world’s rainforests?  And how do we do all of that, while reducing carbon emissions, nitrogen runoff, pesticide use, fresh water depletion, and all the other environmental externalities of industrial farming?

The Dream of Organic?

Organic farming is the fastest growing food trend in the United States today. … Organic yields per acre have been an area of debate for more than a decade, with agronomists showing that organic farms have lower yields, and organic farmers and organic food advocates replying with examples of organic plots matching conventional ones.  For example, the Rodale Institute, which is credited for introducing organic farming into the US, has reported that, in their 30 year side-by-side trial of organic farming versus conventional farming, their organic and conventional test plots produced equal yields.

Unfortunately, larger scale evidence doesn’t back that up. In 2008, as part of its Census of Agriculture, the USDA conducted the Organic Production Survey, the largest every study of organic farming yields.  The study surveyed all of the 14,450 organic farms in the United States, covering a combined 4.1 million acres.

By covering the overwhelming majority of organic production in the US, the survey gave the first clear view of how organic farming compares on a large scale to conventional farming.  And one of the things it found is that organic farms in the US have lower yields than conventional farms.  Organic corn has around 70% of the yield of conventional corn.  Organic rice has 59% of the yield of conventional rice.  Organic spring wheat has 47% of the yield of conventional spring wheat. Organic cabbage has 43% of the yield of conventional cabbage.

Across the board, it takes one and a half times to two times as much land in the United States to grow food organically than it does to grow food via conventional methods.  That, in turn, puts more pressure on farmers around the world to grow more.  In the developing world, that often means slashing and burning forest into farmland, a process that emits a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and harms both the water cycle and species that live in forests.

Organic farming is environmentally kinder to every acre of land.   But it requires more acres.  The trade-off is a harsh one.  Would we rather have pesticides on farmland and nitrogen runoffs from them?  Or would we rather chop down more forest?

How much more forest would we have to chop down?  If we wanted to reduce pesticide use and nitrogen runoff by turning all of the world’s farmland to organic farming, we’d need around 50% more farmland than we have today.  Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, whose work helped triple crop yields over the last 50 years and arguably saved billions from starvation, estimated before his death that the world would need an additional 5 to 6 billion head of cattle to produce enough manure to fertilize that farmland.  There are only an estimated 1.3 billion cattle on the planet today.

Combined, we’d need to chop down roughly half of the world’s remaining forest to grow crops and to graze cattle that produce enough manure to fertilize those crops.   Clearing that much land would produce around 500 billion tons of CO2, or almost as much as the total cumulative CO2 emissions of the world thus far.  And the cattle needed to fertilize that land would produce far more greenhouse gasses, in the form of methane,  than all of agriculture does today, possibly enough to equal all human greenhouse gases emitted from all sources today.

That’s not a viable path.

Undoubtedly, innovation in organic farming will increase yields on organic farms.   But we need to produce 70% more food than we do with today’s conventional yields to feed the world in 2050.   Starting with conventional agriculture we’ll need to boost yields by 70%.  Starting with organic agriculture, we’d need to nearly triple yields in that time – a much larger challenge.

Is there a way to get the best of both worlds?  Can we find a way to grow more food, on the same land, with less pesticides, and less nitrogen runoff?  Can we meet one of the original goals of organic farming, to provide food that’s more nutritious as well?

I believe we can.

Bright Green Agriculture

In labs around the world, there are … works in progress that could feed more people, with greater nutrition, less fertilizer, less irrigation, and less use of pesticides.

Consider the C4 rice and wheat projects.   Corn and sugarcane grow like weeds.  They typically get yields that are about 70% higher than those of wheat or rice.  They need less water than wheat or rice.  They need less nitrogen than wheat or rice.  They’re less vulnerable to the droughts that are rising in frequency around the world.

Corn and sugarcane have the advantage of a new, better form of photosynthesis called C4.  C4 evolved in the last 30 million years.   Plants that use older C3 photosynthesis have to open their pores to absorb CO2 during the heat of the day, while the sun is shining on them.  As a result, they lose moisture to the warm air. Plants that use C4 photosynthesis inhale carbon dioxide at night, when it’s cool, and save it for combining with sunlight during the day.  By doing that, they hang on to more water and capture almost twice as much of the sun’s energy as calories than do C3 plants.  And the system they have to turn CO2, water, and sunlight into sugars needs 30% less nitrogen than the system in C3 plants.

Now an international team of scientists funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working to move the genes for C4 photosynthesis from corn and sugarcane into rice – C4 Rice.  If the projects succeed, we’ll have rice and wheat that produce one and a half times the yield per acre, that require less water per calorie, that need less fertilizer per calorie, and that are more resistant to drought.  They’d allow us to feed more people, on the same land, with less stress on aquifers and rivers, less energy used to create synthetic fertilizer, and less nitrogen runoff.  They’d be achieving some of the goals of organic farming – growing food in a more environmentally friendly manner, while still feeding the world.  And those strains will be free for farmers in the developing world.

The C4 genes are totally natural.   What the C4 rice project is doing, in a sense, is cross-breeding rice with the plants that have evolved to use C4.  The resulting crop will be more than 99.9% rice, but with the energy capturing genes that evolved in thousands of other plants, and have been present in nature for 30 million years.  It’s no different than other sorts of hybrids we create through selective breeding, except that it’s done at a dramatically accelerated rate.

Other scientists are working on an even more ambitious idea:  eliminate the need for fertilizer altogether.    Legumes, such as beans and peas, get their nitrogen directly from the abundant supply in the air, with the help of bacteria that grow inside the plants.   Indeed, their ability to do so is what inspired the Haber-Bosch process that pulls nitrogen from the air to create synthetic fertilizer.   In April 2011, the Gates Foundation convened a small group of researchers to discuss approaches to move this ability into grains like wheat, rice, and corn.  Several scientists have suggested paths forward.  That approach might eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizer – and the carbon emissions and ocean dead zones it causes – entirely.   If we’d like to see lower use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (with good reason) then surely this would be a welcome step as well.

Other groups in industry, academia, and national laboratories in the United States, India, China, and Australia are working on drought resistant wheat and corn, flood resistant crops of all varieties, rice that can grow in saltier water and soils, and canola and yeast that produce healthful long chain omega 3 fatty acids (previously only found in fish).

In short, genetically modified foods could achieve many of the goals of organic agriculture.  They could reduce the amount of energy we need to use, the emission of greenhouse gasses, the amount of water drained from rivers and aquifers, and the runoffs that enter the water.  And they could do this while raising yields, feeding more people, and sparing the world’s forests.

To continue reading Part II, click here.

About the Author

Ramez NaamRamez Naam is a computer scientist who spent 13 years at Microsoft.  He’s also the award-winning author of three books. His latest, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet charts a course to innovate to overcome the very real challenges of climate change, finite fossil fuels, fresh water depletion, feeding the world, and a host of other natural resource and environmental threats facing us.

 

  • “Organic farming is environmentally kinder to every acre of land” is not true. Organic relies on mechanical tillage for weed control, which results in erosion and loss of topsoil. Nitrogen runoff is a problem with manure fertilizer. Organic pesticides and fungicides can be more harsh than synthetic alternatives, and especially in the case of cuprous oxide, far more persistent in the soil than modern compounds.

    Far from “undoubtedly”, it is actually highly unlikely that “innovation in organic farming will increase yields on organic farms.” Organic production methods are most noted for their *rejection* of innovation, and organic’s main focus in marketing is launching scares against nearly anything in food production that is less than 50 years old.

    It may be a fine thing to craft a ‘balanced’ article, but doing so by giving credit where it is not due is a disservice to the greater purpose of accuracy.

    • Hi Andrew, Glad you’re engaging. We at GLP are not “endorsing” any particular point of view when we post an article. In this case, we believe that Ramez Namm has many provocative views that we believe are worthy of debate/discussion. Personally, I agree that the sustainability “advantages” of organic farming is significantly over rated…and Ramez notes some of them.

    • soliel67

      Organic farming builds soil via composting, no? That is creating more top soil which is so important. While synthetics deplete and and kill the microorganisms, making soil more “dead” although it does create immediate gains. How is that helpful in the long run? I compost at home and it makes my garden sing. Ditto for using natural stuff. And what about subjecting workers to pesticides day in a day out? Isn’t that unkind to them?

  • Assaidi

    Yeah, genetically modified crops produce higher yields than organically grown crops. But does growing more actually solve the problem of world hunger? You can grow as much as you want but if the hungry cant afford to buy the food then their is no reason to jump on the GMO band wagon just yet. GMO crops require more water than oranically grown crops, they erode soils much faster, and the pesticide poisons ground and surface water supplies, not to mention the thousands of field workers that have to harvest the crops. If you want to give Monsanto and other multinational biocbemical companies power over our food production, be my guest. But don’t justify it by saying it will help the poor. Your feeding the mouths of biotech companies.

    • Assaidi, I’m not clear the points you’re trying to make. It’s without question that organic farming, while they have a role in the mix of techniques, cannot address global food security. So the choice is really conventional v GM crops, and GM crops are less environmentally harmful, focus on improving traits such as nutrition enhancement or drought resistance, and otherwise a powerful complement to other methods. There are some situations in which GM crops require more water than organic crops but many situations in which they don’t. Both organics and GM crops extensively use pesticides, so that’s not necessarily a good distinction. For example, organic cotton growers often extensively spray their crops with Bt; GMO Bt cotton has it built into the plant, which causes far less environmental harm…so in that case organics is far worse environmentally. I understand your concerns, but I believe you’ve let your crude dislike for large corporations color your view of the relative plusses and minuses of various technologies. Ramez was just making some fairly benign and obvious points–organics might work in small scale farming situations but it is terribly inefficient for the large scale farming necessary to meet global food challenges. In other words, what works in Upstate New York won’t cut it in India or Indonesia. I suggest you read up more on the technology and engage in some cost-benefit analysis of comparative technologies. It might open your mind a bit to a more nuanced perspective.

      • Woody

        All yall shutup