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Nobel Conference speaker outlines agriculture’s future crises

ST. PETER, Minn.

ST. PETER, Minn. — Every age no doubt considers its crises to be the most urgent ever.

But Cary Fowler offered a convincing argument that we are, indeed, at an unusually critical juncture in terms of feeding a global population that is projected to grow by 2.6 billion people over the next 40 years.

As executive director of Global Crop Diversity Trust based in Rome, Italy, Fowler has played a key role in establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in northern Norway. He lectured last week at the 2010 Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

“We are living through perhaps less than one half of 1 percent of the history of agriculture,” Fowler said. “I promise you it’s going to be the most interesting….We are going to run smack dab up against some physical constraints which are not trivial.”

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The blunt reality confronting agriculture is that we live in a world of limits.

“We live on a small planet, a finite planet, a plundered planet,” he said. “And it’s obvious that infinite growth — infinite consumption of water, energy and nutrients — and infinite food production is not possible.”

While some 1 billion people on Earth are chronically hungry, we in America represent the first generation ever to be privileged enough to take food for granted, to assume abundance without giving the matter much thought. We are distracted by our dazzling technological advances.

Thus, we are forgetting the basics of where food comes from.

“For all of our iPods and iPhones, for all of our hybrid vehicles and space shuttles and super colliders, for all of our flat screen TVs, for all of our technological wizardry, we still owe our life to a few inches of topsoil, a handful of crops and an occasional thunderstorm,” Fowler said. “It’s really that simple.”

Fowler outlined the factors that have enabled farmers around the world to increase food production by 29 percent per person during his lifetime: Since the middle part of the last century we have doubled the amount of land under irrigation and tripled the amount of water being used. Fertilizer use is up 23 fold. Pesticide use is up 53 fold. Meanwhile, we’ve been blessed with a favorable climate.

Now, a combination of stresses on those factors poses a “gathering storm” for agriculture, he said.

Take those stresses one by one:

  • Land. From the year 1700 to mid 1900s, farmers met the demands of feeding an expanding population by cultivating more and more land. With less free land available, they made a dramatic shift in the 1980s, switching to ever more intense practices for squeezing more food out of the fields already under cultivation. But that strategy depends on the other factors listed below.
  • Water. With the expansion of irrigation, agriculture has come to use 70 percent of the fresh water supplies. Now, the water in fossil aquifers has been “mined” to the point where some countries — Saudi Arabia for example — have to give up on growing crops like wheat. By importing wheat, they essentially will be importing the water they don’t have. Meanwhile, some 260 river systems worldwide flow through multiple countries. As water becomes more scarce and precious, the risk grows of conflict and tension along those rivers.
  • Energy. Our globalized food system is highly energy dependent. Since the mid-1980s, energy consumption has not been matched by discovery of new forms of energy. So basically we’ve already started to eat at the stockpile. Now oil production is set to peak in the next few years, and we face increasing competition between fuel for other uses and the demands to meet the needs of feeding a growing population.
  • Fertilizer. As oil runs low, demand and prices for natural gas will rise. That will be reflected in the cost of fertilizer because natural gas is a major feedstock for the production of anhydrous ammonia and related products that go into fertilizer.

To that mix of perils, Fowler adds a dramatically warming climate.

“Agricultural crops are at the front line of climate change,” he said. “What’s going to be affected first is going to be the crops in the field.”

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Recent hot years like 2003 have been disastrous for crops around the world. In the future, 2003 will have seemed like a good year, he said.

Fowler showed climate charts projecting that in some parts of the world the coolest growing seasons of the future will be hotter than the hottest growing seasons of the past.

In other words, farmers have seen nothing like the heat that is to come. Unless something is done to slow the impending change, it will be impossible to grow corn, sorghum, pearl millet and similar crops in places like sub-Saharan Africa. It’s hard to imagine the full extent of the misery that millions of people would suffer if those mainstays of the diet in Africa and parts of Asia were to fail.

Even sporadic temperature spikes coming at a time when plants are vulnerable — say, in rice paddies while the plants are flowering — could be devastating.

Fowler’s life work has been dedicated to preserving crop genetic diversity in seed banks around the world and now in the mega bank in Norway. No doubt, many of the deposits in those banks carry genes that could empower plants to withstand more heat and drought.

But it’s a stretch to hope that plant breeding alone could carry the world through the dire change that is looming from so many directions.

That’s why Fowler sounded worried.

“Certainly any of these challenges would be daunting to try to deal with in agriculture,” Fowler said. “My fear is the combination of those challenges — how to deal with all of those things simultaneously.”