Global population growth is predicted to reach 9.5 billion by 2050, and feeding it is one of the greatest challenges facing society. Additionally, developing nations such as China and India will likely continue to expand their economies, creating wealth and higher purchasing power for many. This will result in increased materials consumption and a higher demand for meat, dairy, fish and vegetables, all of which will add pressure to the food system. Meanwhile, greater competition for land, water and energy will continue to stretch an already over-extended environment. To address these issues, humanity must simultaneously increase food production and environmental sustainability. Because these two goals have historically been mutually exclusive, we must radically rethink food production.
Agriculture was first “invented” in the Middle East approximately 15,000 years ago. For the first 14,900 years, the importance of soil health and biodiversity was common knowledge. While farmers did not realize it, they were encouraging growth and diversity of beneficial microorganisms in the soil. In the early part of the 20th century came the realization that we could mass produce chemical fertilizers and pesticides, apply them to fields and base breeding programs on higher inputs with significant success. In the early 1960s, at the beginning of the Green Revolution, it was predicted that world food production would not keep pace with population growth. The term “population bomb” was often used in literature. However, the authors did not take into account dramatic increases in food production per acre over the next 40 years driven by advances in breeding programs, increased utilization of agrochemicals and mechanization of farming operations.
Today we know the gains seen during the Green Revolution are diminishing. Plus, due to the real or perceived adverse effects of agrochemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on human health and the environment, their application is increasingly discouraged in favor of organic production practices. Therein lies the dilemma facing agriculture today, stagnating increases in yield per acre and increasing human discontent for applied chemical fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs. As a result, humanity must once again turn to biology to double agricultural production per acre, the amount it will take to feed the population in 2050.