Jack Bobo: Can Agriculture Save the Planet before It Destroys It? (Part 1)

Mr. Jack Bobo is a leading expert on agricultural biotechnology, and his expertise is reflected in his roles at the U.S. Department of State – Chief, Biotechnology and Textile Trade Policy & Senior Advisor for Biotechnology. Mr. Bobo understands the need for agricultural innovation as well as anyone, so we are very pleased to share a guest post he has written for us on the monumental challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050. The first half of this post is below, while the second half will be posted later in May:

Most people spend little time thinking about where their food comes from, how it is produced and how it makes it to their plate. Until something goes wrong. As soon as there is a problem–E. coli in spinach or salmonella in peanut butter–people understandably begin to ask questions about food safety inspections, practices of the agriculture industry, and larger questions about how farming has changed in the past 50 years.Jack A. Bobo  

The same occurs with respect to hunger. Until 2008, when people in the Middle East and Haiti started rioting because of high food prices, the issue of access and availability of safe and nutritious food had practically disappeared from public discourse. Most of us, unless you’re hungry or there are people protesting or looting in your streets, underestimate the importance of a stable and safe food supply to our society and our standard of living.

With the global population expected to reach nine billion in less than 40 years, the sustainable production of agriculture will be increasingly on the minds of governments, private industry, and even many consumers. Not only do we have to increase the amount of food available, we have to find ways to minimize its footprint on the planet. There is no activity that humankind engages in that has a bigger impact on the planet than agriculture. This is true in terms of impacts on land and water resources as well as in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.  

Therefore one of the great challenges that confront all of us in the next 40 years is to figure out how to maximize the production of food while minimizing the negatives consequences of agriculture–from polluted waterways to disappearing rainforests. 

This seems like a daunting task, and yet, science and technology have proven capable of increasing production year after year for decades. Prior to the 1900s agricultural yields increased at a painfully slow pace. However at the beginning of the last century a series of agricultural breakthroughs ushered in dramatic growth in food production. The first of these revolutions was the advent of synthetic fertilizer in 1915, followed by mechanization, hybrid seeds, pesticides and, most recently, genetically engineered (GE) crops. Corn is a great example; to produce a bushel of corn we use 50% less water, 40% less land, 60% less soil erosion, 40% less energy and 35% less greenhouse gas emissions than we did just three decades ago. [1] 

But, we will have to do more.

We will be sharing the second half of Mr. Bobo’s guest post within the next few weeks, so please check back soon for Part 2!

[1] Sources: Calculations are based on a number of data sources, including: 1. USDA, NASS, Census of Agriculture, Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey, http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/index.php; 2. USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS), Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/ARMS/Access.htm; 3. USDA, National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS),

National Resource Inventory (NRI) Reports http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/technical/nra/nri

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