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Our food system is not broken!

Professor Mario Caccamo

May 2024

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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Faced with claims that we should shift our agricultural systems to embrace more agroecological farming practices, NIAB chief executive Professor Mario Caccamo cautions against reverting to low-input, low-yielding agriculture. Our food system is not broken, he argues, pointing to the success of agricultural innovation not only in minimising the amount of extra land required to feed a rapidly growing world population, but also in reducing farming’s direct impact on the environment. We don’t need to change course, he says. We need greater access to more innovative farming technologies. We need more of the same, only faster. 

         

At the NFU conference in February, a presentation by Jack Bobo, director of the University of Nottingham’s Food Systems Institute, was a much-needed breath of fresh air. His praise for the achievements of modern agriculture was welcomed by the audience as much as they were evidenced by hard data. He observed that agricultural innovation since the 1960s has successfully sustained a fast-growing world population and saved a billion acres from deforestation.

 

Jack Bobo’s analysis contrasts sharply with repeated assertions from Henry Dimbleby, lead author of the National Food Strategy document The Plan, that our food system is broken, and that Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution was at the same time a miracle and a disaster. This has been echoed by others over the past few months, declaring that agriculture today is by far the biggest cause of biodiversity loss, deforestation, water pollution and water scarcity, and the collapse of aquatic life.

 

But this one-dimensional portrayal of modern agriculture fails to recognise the continued rate of progress since Norman Borlaug pioneered the introduction of high-yielding wheat varieties which are estimated to have saved a billion lives from starvation. A billion lives! He was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.

 

The success of our food system has also helped to mitigate mankind’s impact on the planet, given the rate at which access to improved healthcare, medicines and food - driven by science - has supported rapid and exponential growth in the human population.

 

More reliable access to nutritious and safe food has underpinned societal progress. Today we live in a much fairer and more inclusive world, with less poverty and much improved representation for minorities and opportunities for all, more than ever in human history. But much more still needs to be done.

 

We should be cautious about suggestions that reverting to low-input, low-yielding approaches to agriculture can provide sustainable answers to the challenges of our time. Similarly, to infer that crop production today is causing the same environmental impacts as in the 1960s and 1970s, when Borlaug’s Green Revolution began, is like assessing today’s vehicle emissions based on the 6-litre internal combustion engines from the 1960’s.

 

In short, the world has not stood still. Others have followed in Borlaug’s footsteps, like Marc van Montagu, who discovered the Agrobacterium tumefaciens transformation technology used worldwide to produce genetically modified plants. More recent technological advances such as CRISPR gene editing pioneered by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, who are also Nobel prize winners, will help to fast-track the development of new crop varieties.

 

Theirs and others’ innovations have ensured that global food production has not only kept pace with the needs of a burgeoning world population, but also that the impact on the environment has dramatically reduced over time.   

 

One of the best indicators of agriculture’s environmental impact is land use. Converting land for food production translates directly into biodiversity loss and deforestation. The scientific evidence is now compelling that the most efficient way to produce enough food, enhance biodiversity and tackle climate change is to leave nature intact by farming on as small an area as possible. Regardless of the type of farming system, the evidence tells us that the worst thing we can do for nature is to use land for farming.  

 

That’s why recent data published by USDA’s Economic Research Service are so remarkable, and so great a cause for celebration. According to their analysis, covering the period 1961-2020, while the world’s population grew by 122%, the additional land used for agriculture increased by just 6% (see chart below).    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The potential impact on global biodiversity without continuous agricultural innovation does not bear thinking about. It has been estimated that if we tried to feed the global population today on the average agricultural yields of the 1960s, we would need to farm over 85% of global land, instead of the 35% we currently use. 

 

The USDA data also show that, measured per unit of output, global emissions from agriculture have decreased significantly over the past 30 years (see charts below). Again, this is an extraordinary achievement, demonstrating how progressive improvements in farming technologies and innovations can help reduce the carbon footprint of our food supply.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The evidence is unequivocal that agricultural innovation is not only helping to minimise the amount of land required for food production, but also that it is reducing farming’s direct impact on the environment, for example in terms of emissions to air and water.         

 

In the UK, advances in crop genetics, precision engineering and smart agronomy are all helping to reduce agriculture’s environmental impact.

 

A report from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) in October 2023 confirmed significant long-term improvements in invertebrate biodiversity in rivers across all regions of England since 1989, from upland to lowland, from rural to urban, and in areas with low to high levels of arable farming. This is a good indicator of improvements in both soil and water quality, and certainly not the collapse in aquatic life depicted by some.     

 

A study by HFFA Research GmbH in 2021 also concluded that without the contribution of new crop varieties between 2000 and 2020, UK crop yields would be 19% lower, and 1.8 million hectares of additional land would be needed to meet our food needs, causing more than 300 million tonnes of additional GHG emissions. 

 

Of course, we could be making even faster progress with greater access to improved genetic technologies.

 

UK agricultural economist Graham Brookes has concluded that the adoption of GM crops around the world has increased global food, feed and fibre production by nearly 1 billion tonnes (1996-2020), while reducing the environmental impact of pesticide use by over 17%, and reducing carbon emissions by 39.1 billion kg, equivalent to removing 25.9 million cars from the roads.

 

A recent study led by Professor Stuart Smyth at the University of Saskatchewan also found that, thanks to the introduction of GM herbicide tolerant crops, the environmental impact of herbicide use in Saskatchewan from 2016-19 was 65% lower than from 1991-94, with a 45% reduction in active ingredient applied per acre in the context of continuous yield improvements.

 

Indeed a growing body of peer-reviewed scientific literature now confirms the demonstrable environmental benefits of GM crops, yet British growers currently cannot access these transformative technologies. 

 

So, I agree with Jack Bobo’s assertion that our food system isn’t broken. Things are not poorer and deteriorating. They are good and getting better, but we need to act with greater urgency to address the challenge of feeding more people in the face of a changing climate, and with finite natural resources of land, energy and water.

 

We don’t need to change course. We need greater access to more innovative farming technologies. We need more of the same, only faster.

 

Professor Mario Caccamo is chief executive of UK crop science organisation NIAB. A computer scientist, he has over 20 years’ experience in life science research and big data, including specific projects to apply the latest DNA sequencing technologies and bioinformatics methods to advance scientific understanding of crop genetics and the interaction of agricultural crops with their environment. 

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