The Neolithic Revolution was a fundamental change in the way humans lived. The shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture led to permanent settlements, the establishment of social classes and, eventually, the rise of civilisations. It was a major turning point in human history. Throughout history, technological evolution enabled us to farm in more effective ways. Technology is the basis for sustainable agriculture.
Sustainable agriculture should be productive and efficient but also in harmony with the environment. While there is no single solution to ensure food security in a sustainable manner, a combination of sustainable farming practices has to be employed to increase food supplies while protecting the natural resources on which they depend.
Food scarcity has been an issue since life first emerged on the planet and continues to be a threat. Instead of slicing our pie thinner, we need to figure out exactly how we are going to make more pies, which will mean enough food for everyone, globally.
The effects of information and communication on food abundance cannot be overstated. In Zambia, farmers without bank accounts now rely on mobile phones to buy seeds and fertiliser, greatly boosting their profits. In Nigeria, in 2005, cellphones served as a de facto national food distribution system and warded off a famine. The effect of the cell phone in Africa has brought much positive change.
It has been said that feeding the hungry is the world’s oldest philanthropic aim. According to the United Nations, 925-million people don’t have enough to eat. Each year, 10.9-million children die – half because of issues related to undernourishment. In developing countries, one out of three children show stunted growth resulting from malnutrition and Iodine deficiency is the single leading cause of mental retardation and brain damage.
Despite this shocking reality, the past century has also seen miraculous change in our ability to produce food. We’ve managed to feed more people using less space than ever before. At present, we farm 38% of all the land in the world. If production rates remained as they were in 1961, we would have needed 82% to produce the same amount of food. This is what petrochemical-backed agricultural intensification has made possible. The challenge is to replace this unsustainable brute force with sustainable alternatives. If we can work with our ecosystem, while simultaneously optimising our food crops and systems, we could find ourselves in a place of infinite potential.
Many people feel that the question of how best to improve our food crops has been reduced to a binary – to GMO or not to GMO. That is no longer the question. The idea that genetically engineered crops are a sin against nature is not entirely true. It rests on the idea that agriculture is natural. Farming is a 12,000-year-old way of optimising food production. It can be said that all crop plants are genetically modified. The lineage of agriculture is a lineage of humans rearranging plant DNA.
Genetic engineering allows us to be precise in our search for new traits in food. For the first time in the history of plant breeding, the tools of genetic engineering allow us to understand what it is we are doing. Genetic engineering means a radical change in the quality and quantity of information available to us, a move from evolution by natural selection to evolution by intelligent direction.
We cannot deny the role that biological and chemical technology have played, continue to play and will play in the future development of agriculture. Denial would be to deny natural history itself. Indiscriminate or inappropriate use of chemical and biological technology can clearly produce negative consequences to the ecosystem and threaten the long-term viability of agricultural systems. Sustainability, therefore, is the preservation of non-renewable resources.
The main problem with genetically engineered crops is that no one wants to see a few companies in charge of the world’s food supply. Who owns the seed is a real concern. Genetic engineering is a relatively simple technology that scientists in most countries have already perfected and the seed requires no maintenance or advanced farming skills.
Sources and further reading:
Diamandis, H.P and Kotler, S. 2012. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
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