Global agricultural production of rice, wheat, maize, and soybean, crops that together provide over 70% of human calories, was at close to record yields last year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments recognized growers as essential workers and the food supply chain as critical infrastructure. Early concerns about potential food shortages proved unfounded. Our collective fears for the fragility of our food supply should now be transformed into renewed respect and gratitude for farmers and growers, as for other frontline workers.
A key component of the critical agricultural infrastructure is the up-front investment that governments make in research. In the United States, this investment includes USDA laboratories and land grant universities, which develop technologies relevant to agriculture and give them directly to growers, and the human capital of PhDs trained in fundamental plant biology. Although mechanization, industrialization, and production of synthetic fertilizers have contributed to dramatic crop yield increases over the past 50 years, as plant scientists we can be proud of our discoveries leading to improved seed genetics and accelerated breeding strategies that changed the stature and form of plants in the fields and led to increased grain yields.
It is a remarkable achievement that, on the same land area, U.S. corn production increased from 100 metric tons in 1960 to 367 metric tons in 2020. Soybean production more than doubled, from 20 to 46 metric tons, in the same time frame. However, farmers have not reaped the full benefits of these yield increases, a phenomenon that agricultural economists refer to as the “technology treadmill” (Levins and Cochrane, 1996). Although new technologies contribute to increased production, prices decrease faster as those technologies become widely adopted. The demand for agricultural products is inelastic, leaving farmers with slimmer and slimmer margins of profit.
Almost half of the production cost of an acre of corn is for nitrogen fertilizer. As corn prices rose this spring, fertilizer costs also rose, without any significant increases in the costs of ammonia production. A back-of-the-envelope calculation for gross returns on corn in 1960 comes to $60 per acre. In 2020, corn production yielded about $1,000 per acre. However, adjusting for inflation, in 2020 corn yielded $115 per acre in 1960 dollars. Thus, per acre, the yield has tripled, but the return has barely doubled. For soybeans, yields have more than doubled, but gross returns were the same in 2020 as in 1960, about $50 per acre. As the old joke goes, when the farmer who won the million-dollar lottery was asked how he would use his winnings, he replied, “I’m going to keep farming until it’s all gone.”
In just a couple of decades, agriculture has become data-enabled and technology-intensive. Tractors are guided by GPS, and water and fertilizer are precisely applied according to data collected by soil sensors. Innovations in red and blue light-emitting diodes supply specific wavelengths of light to crops grown in controlled environments. Developing technologies include robotic pickers that sense the color of ripe fruits using machine learning algorithms, robotic harvesters small enough not to damage and compact soils, and drones that can deliver agrochemicals more precisely (King, 2017). The protein transition from animal to vegetable proteins in products such as the Impossible burger, vertical agriculture using closed systems in urban and suburban environments, and weather modification technologies might impact farming in disruptive ways (de Wilde, 2016). But will these innovations, wonderful as they are, simply become additional components of the technology treadmill?
Our challenge, then, is to imagine how plant biology can add value to every plant and bring new acres into production while preserving and increasing yields. We have astonishing new tools in genetics, metabolic engineering and synthetic biology, conservation technology, bioinformatics, and biotechnology. As plant biologists, we have a responsibility to use our talents to future proof all of the species we depend on for food, feed, fiber, fuel, and pharmaceuticals, and to create the critical infrastructure for a successful and equitable plant-based bioeconomy that supports the livelihood of growers and their communities.
In the United States, a long history of policy injustices disproportionately impacted African American farmers, who now number 45,000 (of 3.4 million farmers) compared to 1,000,000 a century ago. Pathways for equal participation both in the lab and in the field need to ensure that the best and brightest can become engaged to ensure the robustness of an evolving agriculture.
A pandemic is one shock to the system. The robustness of our food supply will depend on the resilience of the global agricultural system to a series of future shocks. As the population approaches 10 billion, per capita food consumption is projected to grow 8% to 12% (Ahmed et al., 2020). Arable land and fresh water supplies are decreasing. Agricultural productivity is projected to decline as temperature increases and weather events become more erratic. Almost one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come through agriculture, forestry, and land-use change (Ahmed et al., 2020). Worldwide, cattle and dairy cows emit greenhouse gasses equivalent to the total emissions of the United States (Ahmed et al., 2020). Worse, agricultural emissions are heavily skewed to methane and nitrous oxide, much more potent gases than carbon dioxide for global warming.
The agricultural sector must balance food security, nutritional needs, and preservation of biodiversity with the imperative to decarbonize for climate change mitigation. But farmers and growers around the world need to have their livelihoods protected. It’s time for us to step up and support our essential workers.
Thanks to Nick Carpita and Otto Doering for their insights and edits.
Ahmed, J., Almeida, E., Aminetzah, D., et al. (2020). Agriculture and climate change: Reducing emissions through improved farming practices. New York: McKinsey & Company. http://bit.ly/McKinseyClimate
de Wilde, S. (Ed.). (2016). The future of technology in agriculture. The Hague: Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends.
King, A. (2017). The future of agriculture. Nature 544: 521–523. https://doi.org/10.1038/544s21a
Levins, R. A., and Cochrane, W. W. (1996). The treadmill revisited. Land Economics 72: 550–553. https://doi.org/10.2307/3146915