The existential threat to living: Crises pandemic in need of agricultural innovation

Existential Threat Picture DL Erpelding 2021 0222.jpg
From genetic selection to biotechnology to gene editing – innovation accelerated.

We are living in an era of the crisis of the day. Or maybe a crises pandemic! The planet, climate, disease, hunger, health, and so many others each appear to have their crisis of the day, or week, or month, or year, or decade, or century. A new book, a new opinion, a new prediction of catastrophic demise. How will we survive the crises pandemic and apocalyptic scaremongering? Survival of the fittest often comes to mind, or today, more pragmatically, survival of the most innovative. 

Despite the daily barrage of crises, the optimist says we will survive due to our innate ability as individuals to adapt and innovate. Innovation, and the adoption of innovation, has allowed the world to thrive, to feed all, to cure ills and to spur global economic growth. Agriculture, both in the food animal sector and the plant sector, has innovated the past decades to meet the unending challenges and it can keep innovating to meet the current and future challenges.

Farm level innovation the past decades includes the areas of genetics, management, efficiency, productivity, and sustainability. The future holds for an acceleration of innovation due to more precise scientific innovation. Consider the old times of traditional plant and animal breeding when it took years or even decades for major improvements through genetic selection. In more recent years, biotechnology allowed us to shorten the innovation timeframe. And now technologies as gene editing, specifically CRISPR that uses a molecular tool that makes targeted improvements to a plant’s DNA, provide a more precise and rapid way to take what nature has provided and make it better for all. The ability to focus in on a specific trait or gene streamlines the process. Selecting for a specific desired need allows for improvements ranging from 10% to 40% with nutritional value components, resistance capabilities, drought tolerances, carbon capture, or most any targeted need.        

The world’s growing population from 7.8 billion people today to a projected 10 billion people in the future will require that we innovate to have a sustainable world for people, animals, and the planet – a One Health world that has almost 690 million undernourished today.

Individuals, activists, and politicians have recognized that to garner attention and seek focused action one must create an emotional existential crisis to awaken and mobilize locally, nationally, and globally. And with a greater theoretical threat, the greater urgency to act now, and thus the greater need to seek and mobilize resources globally – people and financial – and the call for dramatic policy changes. The more dramatic the threat, the more justification for an enlightened authoritarian ivory tower approach mandating measures of change, theoretically to save the world.

Global agriculture output has increased 60% over the past 40 years or growing at an average annual rate of about 1.63%. Agriculture innovation is amazing as when one considers the plant yields for rice, wheat, corn, sorghum, or soybeans. Also, when one considers the productivity yields of a chicken, pig, or cow – eggs, meat, and milk. These innovations have resulted in better livelihoods for the farmers, more nutritious food for consumers, and a more sustainable production system, thus a more sustainable world. The global food systems need to build upon these historical and major successes.     

The forthcoming UN Food Systems Summit proffers the idea of urgency for transforming the global food system, in part due to the theoretical impending planetary crisis whether that be exceeding the planetary boundaries, increasing ocean levels, or global warming. Yes, action is needed by all, but it is critical that there be a scientific basis upon which actions are determined, prioritized, and resourced.          

Reflecting on the apocalyptic predictions the past many decades, history has an amazing ability to prove unfounded theories of impending crises false. The world has not ended, the rising oceans have not flooded the lands, the plagues have not decimated the masses, and even eating meat as part of a balanced diet has not ended mankind. The plethora of predictions by “informed authors” have been many, yet history has determined their predicted apocalyptic outcomes total rubbish. 

The forthcoming UN Food Systems Summit provides an opportunity for an informed science-based discussion, identification of measures to improve our global food systems, ideas for resourcing prioritized needed modifications, and targeted outcomes that can enhance livelihoods, improve diets, and reduce our dietary footprint. It can identify policies and practices, that with adoption, will result in advancing One Health outcomes for a more sustainable world. 

Yes, there are planetary boundaries, yes, humans do impact the environment, and yes, we all need to act as individuals and act together to sustain our world – human health, plant health and environmental health. As we act let us address our personal footprint, our local footprint, our national footprint, and our global footprint. Critically are we leading or preaching, are our own personal actions reflective of those actions and policies we wish to impose upon others? Does carbon trading, or offsetting, or net zero, yield real benefits or feel-good benefits? Are we providing the most vulnerable the opportunity we have had for a better livelihood and a better diet?

Looking ahead in order to meet the global food security challenges, we need to recognize it will take innovation and adoption of best practices to ensure all globally are food secure. Genetic selection, biotechnology, and gene editing as CRISPR each can have roles globally. There will be roles for various production practices including organic, regenerative, and conventional. Roles for new approaches on the land and in the ocean. Ideas with leveraging horizontal and vertical production systems. Consideration for social, ethical, and religious preferences. Opportunity for choice in diets, nutrition sources, and production practices – natural and synthetic. Needs to understand holistic sustainability more fully, including true total life cycle analysis with greater understanding of nutrition, energy, nutrients, and micronutrients needs, and respective footprints of meeting such specifics.

The existential threat to living does appear to be the crises pandemic. However, history has demonstrated our ability to innovate, to adopt, and to adapt. For 2021, let us focus on the possible, the innovations, and our collective capacity to meet any challenge passed our way. Critically, can we recognize that scientific innovation is our path to success? Can we recognize our successes of the past, and build upon them, as we chart our path forward? How do we accelerate agricultural innovation? Transformative where needed, refinement where appropriate. Collaboration and cooperation of individuals, the private sector, and the government sector will be essential for achieving nutritional needs, health goals, and food security. And we need to ensure we seek to provide a balanced and nutritious diet for all – a diet that includes food animal sourced and plant sourced nutrition.  Yes, I will have my beef, or pork, or chicken, or dairy, as a part of my balanced and nutritious diet, that includes a variety of plant sourced foods as well.  Agricultural innovation is the solution to the existential threat!   

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