Monday, May 26, 2014

State Department Official: 'Can Agriculture Save the Planet Before It Destroys It?'

    Secretary of State John Kerry recently told the graduating class of Boston College that climate change is threatening "nothing less than the future of the entire planet."  Now another state department official is asserting that even if the planet dodges the climate change bullet, the earth may be done in by agriculture.
    Jack Bobo, Chief of Biotechnology and Textile Trade Policy and Senior Advisor for Biotechnology in the Department of State's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, recent wrote a two-part article for ArcticApples.com, the website of a Canadian company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc.  The article, entitled "Can Agriculture Save the Planet before It Destroys It?", was republished last Saturday on DipNote, the official U.S. Department of State blog (the original source of the article was not noted.)
    Mr. Bobo's concern revolves around earth's growing population against the backdrop of the "negatives consequences of agriculture -- from polluted waterways to disappearing rainforests":
 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.
    Mr. Bobo notes the tremendous advances in agriculture particularly over the past century and concedes that the "rapid pace of technological development suggests that scientists may, indeed, be able to sustain the growth of the past." However, he notes:
In order to sustainably feed 9 billion people, global agriculture will need to produce 60 percent more food using less land, less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides. In other words, we will need to do everything better than we are doing it today and our rivers and lakes are already running dry.
    According to Mr. Bobo, between now and 2050 will be the "most important 40 years there have ever been in the history of agriculture."  On the up side, if earth can make it to 2050 when population growth is projected to crash, "we will be good forever" in Mr. Bobo's words:
The good news is that after 2050 population growth will slow dramatically and everything will get easier. So, if we are able to get to 2050 without cutting down our forests and draining our rivers and lakes, we will be good forever. The next 40 years are not only the most important 40 years there have ever been in the history of agriculture. They are also the most important 40 years there will ever be in the history of agriculture.
    While Mr. Bobo is worried, he places great faith in science to help solve the agricultural crisis, noting that while he is the "first to admit that science doesn’t always get it right. It’s also true, however, that you can’t get it right without science."  The article ends on an optimistic note that, if everyone does his part, "agriculture just might save the planet."

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

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