Today, the planet produces enough calories for every person on the planet to eat a steady diet, though social and political issues make distribution uneven. That caloric output, however, has come at a cost to both farmland and the larger environment.
There is no older industry than agriculture, where technological advances such as new planting methods and innovations like genetic editing, have steadily contributed to the world’s output of food. That caloric output, however, has come at a cost to both farmland and the larger environment. But the time is ripe for a revolution in agriculture, driven by changes in consumer sentiment, shifts in the fortunes of large agricultural companies, and rapid technological advances.
Jason Pontin, senior partner and chief editor at Flagship Pioneering, spoke with Robert Berendes, a long-time member of Flagship’s ecosystem and a well-respected voice in agriculture. Robert was recently named a Flagship executive partner.
"Some people always say that we’re going to run out of food. The simple fact is that we never have."
Jason Pontin: We often hear, as a kind of unexamined assertion, that we will need different forms of agriculture to feed the 10 billion people who will be alive by 2050. But, in truth, we could probably feed those 10 billion people now, right?
Robert Berendes: I typically call this the ongoing use—or abuse—of the Malthusian challenge. Some people always say that we’re going to run out of food. The simple fact is that we never have.
In terms of calorie production per capita per day, the world has always been able to produce enough food. The reason some people go to bed hungry is not a food production issue. It’s distribution, local politics, trade issues, and so on. The continual focus on feeding 8, 10, or 12 billion people ignores the true tradeoffs of our global food production system. The real issues are bigger and go far beyond food production.
JP: What are the biggest challenges and unmet needs in modern agriculture? What are we doing badly, and what might not scale to a planet roiled by climate change?
RB: There is one huge technical issue, and one more emotional issue.
The technical issue is that—despite my total confidence that we can feed 10 billion people with technology solutions—we are systematically degrading the agricultural properties of this planet. We’re degrading the soil in which we plant crops. We overuse groundwater. We contribute to carbon emissions, rather than being carbon negative or capturing CO2 out of the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil. We overuse fertilizer, which contaminates groundwater and fresh water. In other words, the environmental sustainability of our modern food production system hasn’t worked for many decades. The tradeoff has always been made for more calories. But if we project forward, I think it’s clear that our current system’s environmental sustainability and the planet’s health are under massive threat.
JP: And what’s the emotional issue that the modern agricultural system doesn’t address?
RB: You probably wouldn’t find a single person on this planet who is happy with how the world produces food.
This is a combination of several things. First of all, people have a strong feeling that we’re not producing food in an environmentally sustainable way. In particular, farmers—who are both consumers and producers—feel very unhappy because they want to be stewards of their land. They want to leave their land better off for the next generation. Their farm is their main asset, and they’re closer to food production than anybody else.
Also, people don’t like the kinds of technologies we’re using today to produce calories. They don’t like the side effects, but they also don’t like the main effects of today’s system.
JP: So both the input and the outputs are unsatisfactory?
Robert: It’s unsatisfactory in all dimensions. That is an emotional distress that everybody who works in food production and in agriculture feels.
"You probably wouldn’t find a single person on this planet who is happy with how the world produces food."
JP: How would modern plant breeding methods—such as computational models and techniques like manipulating the microbiota of seeds—help address those unmet challenges?
RB: New methods and technologies will address these challenges comprehensively and quickly. I think this will happen in two fundamentally different ways.
First of all, we’re at a unique point in time in terms of technology acceleration. Agriculture is typically one of the last industries to adopt new technologies, which means that the knowledge of the plant microbiome is always 10 to 15 years behind knowledge of the human microbiome. Gene editing is entering plants 10 to 15 years later. The application of digital technologies is happening later, too.
We now see the dramatic acceleration of these technologies coming together. They will do a number of things in parallel. They will safeguard production levels even against the backdrop of challenges like climate change. The industry will substitute these newer, more benign, environmentally friendly alternatives for current poor practices we saw, for example, in pesticides, GM traits, fertilization, etc. And they will change the emotional issue, too, because they will allow the world’s food system to become more democratic. Today, three or four players own the food production world. In the future, there will be more players out there. Farms will finally become profitable again and farmers will be able to fulfill their role of being good to the world, good to the food system, and good to the environment.
And I think regulators—a group often forgotten in agriculture—will immediately change, too. The reason we have the technology we have today is that regulators that are technically knowledgeable can see the tradeoffs of current solutions, but they can’t stop poor technology because there’s not a better alternative. But any regulator that sees alternative options—like plant microbiome products, gene-edited seeds, or precision agriculture—will just drop existing technologies overnight. If there’s a better alternative and a new tradeoff, things will change dramatically.
JP: Today, big ag is surprisingly similar to big pharma. The costs of making new seeds are are so high and the time periods involved so long that seed companies are forced to impose mono-crops on the entire world, reducing consumer choice.
RB: Our existing infrastructure enforces the commoditization of crops. At the moment of harvest, every crop is a specialty. Commoditization in agriculture is an active process. We put everything from many fields into a big bin and mix them up, and then we make a starch or protein out of it.
In a world where farm A is connected to process B in a traceable and very transparent way, we can keep the specialty of each crop. We can de-commoditize agriculture.
This will enable consumer satisfaction and connect the public to farms again in ways that we haven’t seen for 300 to 400 years. It will be like in the past, when people had a little farm in their neighborhood, or they were producing themselves, or they were buying it from their neighbor.
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