I have not for some time posted anything relating to the overhanging problem of increasing the world’s food supply as the global population keeps growing and the amount of arable agrarian land keeps declining due to land development and coastal flooding. But several recent articles on how technology, chemistry and climate change are impacting developments in agriculture have caught my eye.
Recently, a private firm called The Climate Corporation was acquired by Monsanto. The company was started by several former employees of Google, backed by Khosla Ventures, Google Ventures and other investors, who were very knowledgeable in acquiring and handling enormous amounts of data. They became aware of the fact that weather and climate data is available from 2.5 million locations, as well as 150 billion soil observations and multiple forecasts from major climate change models. With access to these data, the Climate Corporation built complex models that use these data to carry out risk analyses to provide farmers with insurance that protects them from extreme weather. It also provides farmers information to help them decide the best seeds to plant as well as the time of year to plant and harvest. Information is provided on how much fertilizer to use and what the expected yield is likely to be each day (!). With weather patterns becoming more erratic, it is easy to see why farmers are very interested in this service, which is sold in a number of ways.
It is easy to understand why Monsanto bought this firm, which complements Monsanto’s ag chemicals product line. Emulating what IBM did when in the 1990s it decided to provide “solutions” to their customers instead of selling them boxes and software, Monsanto can now work more closely with farmers, though The Climate Corporation will allegedly be operated as an independent entity.
There is a global need to produce more food as the rising number of people (nine billion by 2050) and the growing appetites of wealthier populations will arguably create a crisis. Climate change will make the problem even worse due to higher temperatures and wetter conditions that spread infections and insects into new areas, with very hot days already reducing crop yields. This means that biotech crops, in other words, genetically engineered foods, will have an essential role in providing adequate food.
In spite of considerable advances, genetically modified plants have not really increased our edible food supply. Much of our corn and soybeans have been genetically modified to resist insects, but little of these crops end up in human food consumption (One use: high fructose corn syrup). These animal feed crops are so profitable that farmers are now planting less wheat, the most important crop for human consumption.
Nevertheless, much work is being done in the GMO area to develop crops of edible food that will be able to withstand climate change, but this generally requires engineering complex traits with multiple genes. Some promising work is now developing mold-resistant potatoes which will be able to stand higher growing temperatures and humidity. Potatoes are a key staple for millions of people in the world with production estimated at 380 million tons. Rice, which feeds nearly half the people in the world, thrives in hot and wet conditions, but is vulnerable to rising sea water and uncontrolled flooding. Transgenic rice, now also under development, would have drought, heat and submergence tolerance. . The demand for wheat, the most widely grown crop, is expected to rise by 60% by 2050. Wheat is very heat sensitive. Production of wheat between 1980 and 2008 was considerably lower than it would have been without global warming. The next GMO battle may well be over transgenic wheat.
There continues to be strong popular resistance, particularly in Europe, to genetically modified foods. So, with more and more research now being carried out on GM foods, which would greatly increase food supply, the battle between supporters and adversaries will certainly sharpen.