Growing Pains, continued

Green Revolution: Part 2

Foley says this is potentially a bigger problem than climate change, and wonders why it gets talked about far less. “We may be able to adapt to a warmer world, even if we decide to keep using fossil fuels, but we can’t say ‘nah, we’re not going to grow any more food,’ or say to the next billion or so people born on this world, ‘nah, you’re not going to eat.’”

Still, Tomich remains fairly optimistic. “As a species we’ve demonstrated a great ability to invent and innovate.” The key moving forward, he says, is collaborating rather than competing as individuals.

Take the slowing yield growth, for instance. David Lobell, a food security and environmental researcher at Stanford University, points out that “it’s often the leading edge—the highest yielding areas—that bump up first against any sort of yield potential.” For rice, that’s clearly in Asia. But in other parts of the world, notably in Africa, yields are still well below their potential.

“There are promising technologies [in Africa],” says Lobell, such as the development of a rice that is much improved for desert environments. More important, he says, is the development of markets and incentives to apply fertilizer, which could increase yields.

But even in Asia, “the ‘maximum yield’ is subject to change as technology improves,” says Lobell.

Zeigler says the IRRI is developing new rice hybrids they think have the potential to significantly improve yields in the next two decades. And, looking even further down the road, the IRRI is working to modify the photosynthetic system of rice from the evolutionarily older C3 process to capture sunlight to the newer C4 process used by maize and sugarcane. Zeigler says this would increase yields by anywhere from 40 to 50 percent.

Many researchers say these kinds of crop advances, many of which can only come about through genetic modification, are absolutely crucial to prevent the looming crisis. Not only do the crops have the potential to feed more people, but they could do so with a lower impact on the environment.

Higher yields will continue to mean less land needs to be converted to agricultural use. But by modifying the seed varieties, grains can be developed to use less water as well. And they can be developed to use less fertilizer more efficiently, meaning less would need to be manufactured and less runs off into water sources or turns into nitrous oxide in the environment.

Foley shares the concerns of a lot of people about genetic modification. “The regulation of these new GMOs [genetically modified organisms] is probably not what it should be,” he says. “It would be nice if there were partnerships between private entities and watchdog groups to make sure these things are used wisely.” Still, he says the possibilities are very interesting.

Beyond seed varieties, there have been significant advances in crop management that have helped farmers minimize their negative impact on the environment.

One is the GPS technology that leads to less waste. Another is something called “no-till” or “minimum-till” where, for the first time since agriculture began, farmers are forgoing the plow. Instead of digging through the soil at the beginning of every growing season to turn over the soil and get rid of weeds and last season’s leftovers, farmers are leaving the ground cover be—or disturbing it far less. It preserves more moisture in the soil, which decreases runoff and keeps the soil rich so it needs less fertilizer.

For more and more farmers today, good business and good environmental practices go hand in hand.

“We in agriculture will take second place to no one in our commitment to land, air, water and the care for livestock and of our families,” says Paap. “We’ve got a vital stake in respecting and protecting our environment, for ourselves and future generations, while at the same time remaining a leader in feeding the world.”

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NAOMI SECK is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who covers a wide range of global environmental topics. She is a frequent contributor to Voice of America and has also reported for The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, CNN Traveller and more.

Ancient Wisdom, Updated

In Ancient Rome, the most famous statesmen proudly called themselves farmers, and many happily shared their knowledge in books for the average Joe.

In one particularly well-known example, which Iowa State’s David Hollander recalls, Cato the Elder explained how to make the most profit as a farmer: “Raise cattle.”

What, he imagined someone questioning, is second best? “Raise cattle not as well.”

And third? “Be a lousy cattle farmer.”

These days, cattle farming may or may not be the most profitable, but from an environmental standpoint, it has some of the highest impacts.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at all, says IonE director Jonathan Foley, since some lands are particularly well-suited to raising livestock and not much else.

But from a consumer standpoint, says Carnegie Mellon researcher Chris Weber, if your goal is to minimize your personal carbon footprint, one of the best ways is to eat less beef and dairy.

A lot of people think you should eat locally to reduce your carbon footprint, says Weber, but if you look at the data, which he did, it doesn’t bear out.

“If you were to completely localize your diet, you would reduce household emissions something like eliminating 1,000 miles a year driven in a 25 miles-per-gallon car,” he says.

“But if you switch, one day a week, all your calories from red meat or dairy to vegetables, it would be like driving 1,200 miles a year less.”

That’s because cows and other ruminant animals emit methane as part of their digestive process. Plus, cows eat more calories of grain to make the equivalent number of calories of meat, which means more grain has to be grown around the world.

But if you love your steaks, know that, from a carbon-emissions perspective, grass-fed cattle are on equal footing to grain-fed.

“Although you’re cutting out emissions associated with making the grain,” says Weber, “cows that are eating grass actually belch more, so more methane is released from that. Plus they have to live longer to get to the weight needed to slaughter.”