For 10,000 years humans have figured out ways to grow food in every landscape, from deserts to forests to cities. We’ve moved earth and rivers, and in recent generations, utilized artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified seeds to grow more food faster.
But today we are faced with a conundrum. The world’s population will grow by some 2.5 billion people by 2050, according to the United Nations, and 80 percent of the land that is suitable for growing food is already in use. At the same time, our strategies to squeeze the maximum productivity from the earth to feed ourselves is diminishing the health of land, depleting soil, and degrading ecosystems. So how will we feed ourselves sustainably in the future?
This is a question with consequences for global health and security. The price of crops like maize, soybeans, rice, and wheat are particularly vulnerable to global macroeconomic factors such as petroleum prices that affect transportation and fertilizer costs, changes in exchange rates among countries, and financial speculation leading to bubbles and crashes.
In most of the developed world, food-price fluctuations might pinch pocketbooks, but for the poor, who use the majority of their income to feed themselves, the consequences are felt directly in their stomachs. Experts estimate that during the 2007-2008 food-price crises, for instance, 80 million more people became undernourished.
According to the New England Complex Systems Institute, protests that erupted in Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan in 2008, and the subsequent Arab Spring movement that sprung up across the Middle East in 2011, illustrate the relationship between social unrest and large peaks in global food prices. “These observations suggest that protests may reflect not only long-standing political failing of government, but also the sudden desperate straits of vulnerable populations,” reported the institute’s researchers.
Many policy experts at the Food and Agriculture Organization, among other institutions, believe the challenge facing us now is to practice something called “sustainable intensification.” This means increasing food production from existing farmland while minimizing pressure on the environment.
Some scientists are meeting the challenge of sustainable intensification by looking inside the genomes of humanity’s most important crops to figure out how we can grow food better. For instance, we now have maps of the genomes from approximately 3,000 rice varieties and have catalogued 40,000 individual rice genes. One of these genes is called “Sub1”, and it is helping scientists breed varieties of rice that can tolerate complete submergence in water. Normally, this would slow growth and eventually kill rice plants. But if the Sub1 gene is present, a rice plant can be submerged in water for days and maintain growth at the same rate as if it were growing on land
Why is this important? Sub1 genes in rice varieties help farmers preserve their crops during flash floods that would otherwise wipe out their food source and livelihoods and throw them into a cycle of hunger and poverty.
Genotyping (analyzing the genetic profile of a plant) can give us new tools to begin producing more food in a sustainable fashion by accelerating the pace of positive genetic changes in agriculture, according to Michael Thomson, a molecular geneticist with the International Rice Research Institute. This research is already leading to breakthroughs in developing climate-resilient, high-yielding rice varieties, that he said can produce higher quantities of rice for a growing population.
Significantly, these breakthroughs can also help address price fluctuations and volatility in the commodity market, already one of the most unpredictable in the world. “There are many factors involved in rice-price fluctuations, but genomics and modern breeding techniques are leading to more resilient varieties that can withstand more extreme conditions, such as drought or flooding, that helps lead to more stable yields,” explained Thomson. “The goal is to prevent crop losses in bad times while keeping high yields in favorable
Another approach that can stabilize food commodity markets is optimizing agricultural environments to minimize such environmental threats to crops as flooding, drought and disease. In a warehouse in Portage, Indiana, farmers are experimenting with a radical new kind of farming that does just that. Green Sense Farms was founded by Robert Colangelo, an entrepreneur and earth scientist. On 30,000 square feet of space in a warehouse, Colangelo and his team are growing non-genetically modified lettuces and herbs without using pesticides, herbicides, sunlight, soil, or rain. They use one tenth the land of a traditional farm and produce 26 harvests per year.
“I think that there is a revolution going on in farming, just like what happened with the automobile,” said Colangelo. “Twenty years ago, cars primarily ran on gasoline. Now you have a choice of diesel, electric, hybrid. The same thing is happening in farming.”
The magic Green Sense Farms employs is light-emitting diodes, or LED lights. These are the same lights whose invention garnered three physicists the Nobel Prize this year, and they consume less energy than normal light bulbs while lasting 30 times longer. LED lights can mimic natural light, and changes to intensity and wavelength of the lights can manipulate plant metabolism, according to plant physiologists.
In 2014, global lighting company Philips partnered with Greene Sense Farms, providing them with LED lights that are specifically tailored to the farm’s crops. By controlling the color of the lights, from red to blue, the farmers are making “light recipes” that optimize the growth of the plants and use 85 percent less energy than other indoor agriculture.
Colangelo’s goal is to have Green Sense Farms grow into a national network within the United States. But warehouses similar to the one in Indiana could be located virtually anywhere with access to a power source, shortening supply chains, conserving energy, and giving new meaning to the phrase “locally grown.”
“I think the technology in the future is a controlled environment agriculture. LED lights are a subset of that, it’s one of the technologies that allow you to grow,” explained Colangelo. “It’s that integrated systems approach, and doing that inside is clearly the wave of the future.”