Humanity has done many remarkable things in the 200,000 or so years since the birth of our first species. Two defining functions of note: first we evolved, reproduced and created more humans, and then, as we reached the limits of our planet, we increased our planet’s resource base.
Agriculturalists found a way to grow enough calories to feed a growing population, but this had little to do with nutrition or impact on the planet. Today, as we face the consequences of our uncontrolled losses, can agronomists save us again?
About 8 billion and growing, humanity doesn’t have much space left – at least in a philosophical sense. Sure, there are still areas of the planet where you can throw rocks and not kill anyone; But it is a function of the strange distribution of our species. At first, we spread chasing animals that were tied to the distributed resources of our planet. Then we hacked the system, and we called this first great hack “agriculture”.
Agriculture triggered a population explosion and specialization that led to the birth of cities. Cities were humble at first, but within a few millennia grew to hundreds of thousands, then millions, and now millions. As cities grew, they demanded more land – more production to support the world’s hungry mouths carrying millions more.
Taking our planet from one that might take a few million hunter-gatherers and turning it into a world that increasingly serves the needs of a single species, a ballooning population and an increasingly anti-global A game of cat and mouse started between the ecosystem. Farmers and agriculturists have always been leading this war against nature – both heroes and supporters.
To be fair, we’ve come across less from time to time. Populations concentrated in cities and regions became their own miniature ecosystems in a bottle, and sometimes the resources of that area were depleted and a “reformation” took place. Reformation is an abortive word for death, destruction, misery – the kind of hell that many modern people can’t remember or even understand. By the late 1970s, starvation deaths were still common in regions such as India.
Talkin bout a revolution
Two important things changed that saved millions of lives and propelled humanity on a calorie-fuelled development binge. Earlier Green revolution Second, globalization brought consistent, high-yielding agriculture to the planet, and second, globalization enabled the flow of goods (fertilizer, technology, information, food) from areas of supply to areas of demand, regardless of where those regions were.
The Green Revolution is a strange term – it refers to violent coups and rebellions against tyranny. To be fair, that was it. With the Green Revolution, humanity has overcome the tyrannical constraints imposed by nature on its subject species and leaped forward. Norman Borlaug Gets a lot of credit. A temperamental breeder, he went on to lead the rapid development of modern, high-yield wheat against the grain, with strategy and an approach that quickly brought high-yielding cereal grains to the world, saving millions of lives. Saved and enabled billions.
The Green Revolution evolved into a new world order – the trade of food across thousands of miles, with calories so abundant they became almost useless. This gave rise to megacities of the 20th and 21st centuries, closely unrestricted by food supply or agricultural land. It saved countless lives, but it also sparked an epidemic of dietary diseases as humanity grapples with the era of cheap, easy calories.
The Green Revolution also gave rise to global supply chains that traded food for thousands of miles, and billions of lives were in limbo. It brought with it a campaign of environmental destruction, measured in the millions of acres of forest destroyed, prairie plowed and gigatonnes of CO2 dumped into an already warming atmosphere. This could very well be crowned the Anthropocene.
a new world order
Today we are once again facing a do or die scenario. The last big leap resolved for calories, yield and scale. This great leap will demand that we continue to solve for yield, as well as better address nutritional needs and sustainability. We must build a climate change-resistant and reversible system, a system that is less exhaustive and opens the door to a sustainable future of development for humanity and the restoration of our world.
The conditions for this next act are dire. Farms are disappearing at record rates, even as we cut off the Amazon. Freshwater is scarce than ever, and variable weather is taking its toll. It is time to free agriculture from these resources, to increase the food supply, while we use less water, fossil fuels and carbon to do so. It is time to build up the land in ways and territories that preserve what we have.
This means that for those of us at AgTech, the next step is upon us. Together we have to take agriculture indoors. This next act will require all the cleverness of agronomists of the past, the inspiration of those with famine memory, and the wisdom of ecologists, naturalists, and those who know that our long-term existence can never be divorced. our Planet. This is a story that deserves some thought and attention. It is the story of our past, our present and the future of our species.
In my next few articles, I’ll take a deeper look at what’s working, what needs to change, and whether technology has the power to meet the needs of today.