The conventional wisdom still promotes intensification: high use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, along with large amounts of water, mostly through irrigation, to achieve high yields. This approach has been great, in one sense, because it prevented massive famine despite the huge population growth that we’ve seen since the 1960s. But the “green revolution” of intensive agriculture also resulted in massive off-farm consequences at levels that can’t possibly be sustained.
The first major ecological “dead zone,” in the Gulf of Mexico, was reported in 1996. Oxygen was depleted to a level that killed off the fish and promoted very dangerous blooms of toxic algae. Since then, hundreds of other dead zones have been discovered, in oceans and lakes all over the world. Water of poor drinking quality is coming out of river systems, and a large extinction crisis is under way. All of this can be traced, at least in part, to intensive agricultural practices.
Now the challenge is to increase those already high food yields, while greatly reducing net environmental impacts and maintaining other benefits from the land. Thus a new agricultural model is emerging. It means looking at a farmer not just as a producer of a crop like wheat, wool, or corn, but as a steward of a variety of commodities. In this new model, farmers are paid for water quality, flood control, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity conservation, as well as for food. They tend their forests as well as their fields. From an economic perspective, it makes a lot of sense to use land in this more diverse way. In a typical farmstead, some land is optimally suited for agricultural production, but other land is better suited to other forms of natural capital.
There is a long way to go in realizing this model, especially in the face of projected population growth, dietary shifts (toward more protein), and climate change. But it could help buy the time we need for human population growth to reach the peak that’s projected for mid-century and start to humanely decline.
At the same time, agricultural companies are starting to recognize the potential in crop diversity. About half of the annual increase in crop productivity comes from genetic innovation, and that relies on having access to the wild relatives of crops. For example, to improve corn yields, you need diverse forms of maize that are often found in natural habitats. Food security also hinges on cultivating a wide array of nutritious and locally adapted crops that are no longer prevalent on our farmland or in our diets. They were replaced by a few crops — wheat, rice, maize, and soybeans — and we now need to revive the broader group.
S+B: What about the pharmaceutical industry?
DAILY: In the 1980s and ’90s, many conservationists hoped that bioprospecting — the search for potent pharmaceutical ingredients — would be a silver bullet for stopping destruction of rain forests, coral reefs, and other ecosystems under siege. Unfortunately, many government–industry partnerships have gotten bogged down in intellectual property rights issues, and bioprospecting has proven more difficult than expected.
The truth is, it might not have been that lucrative anyway. I’m not an expert on drug development, but there are so many hurdles to clear for any widely used product. It can be expensive and risky; it means not just understanding how local human populations use plants for medicinal purposes, but also figuring out how to synthesize the active plant ingredients and take them to market. In the end, though we rely heavily on nature for pharmaceuticals, it’s very challenging to promote the discovery and development of more chemicals this way while sustaining rain forests and other habitats.