How Does Agricultural Innovation Keep Up with the Food Supply?

Agricultural Innovation and the Food Supply

Explore two contrasting views of our food supply.

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At the turn of the 19th century, when the human population of the planet stood at a mere 1 billion people, an English cleric and economist named Thomas Robert Malthus, came up with a theory that the world’s ability to produce food would not keep up with population growth. He wrote that a lack of food — along with other forces — would act as a “check” or brake against population growth.

More than 150 years later a Danish economist, Ester Boserup, suggested a competing theory about the relationship between food production and population growth. In her seminal 1965 book, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure, Boserup talked of “agricultural intensification” that came as a direct result of population pressure. That intensification has resulted in continuous innovation when it comes to food production, storage and distribution.

It’s an important debate because population pressures are increasing. There are some 7.3 billion people living on the earth today. The estimated population in 2050 will be close to 9.7 billion, says the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Ester Boserup Flipped the Script

That’s why the Malthus-Boserup debate is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Malthus didn’t believe that agricultural technologies or “methods” would improve to the point that growth in food production could keep up with growth in human populations. Food production would increase only linearly, he believed, whereas population growth would be exponential.

In essence, Boserup flipped Malthus’ assumption on its head. In her view, population growth creates the needed innovations and technologies to bolster food production through new methods of growing and harvesting crops, livestock or fish. For Boserup, population pressures themselves translate to more innovation that sustains population growth.

“Population pressure is the motor of innovation,” explains Carsten Lemmen, an agricultural scientist at Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht near Hamburg, Germany. As long as population pressures are not too severe, says Lemmen, agricultural productivity will increase.

The Green Revolution Helps Feed Growing Populations

Boserup has been largely proven right. In the developing world, for instance, the Green Revolution between the 1930s and the 1960s combined farmers’ use of fertilizers, crop protection products and higher-yield crop varieties to bolster food production. And where there were also positive social and political conditions, the Green Revolution helped feed growing populations.

After the Green Revolution, researchers and industry continued to develop better and safer pesticides, and used genetic research and modifications to invent new, hardier crops with greater disease resistance or higher capacity to flourish in more difficult environmental conditions. At the same time, social and political movements that encouraged more careful stewardship of land, watershed and fishery resources also added to the growth in food production.

For the last half century, information technology has contributed mightily to the productivity of crops, livestock and the fisheries. Precision agriculture — known as “smart farming” — means that sowing, watering, fertilizing, weeding, harvesting, storing, and shipping food from farm to table are all becoming more technology driven and precise.

Dr. Kathy Shelton, Global Technology Leader for DuPont Crop Protection, says, “Despite being one of the oldest of human practices, agriculture continues to be among the most innovative. Thanks to ongoing advances in scientific ingenuity, agricultural innovations have moved in lockstep with growth in human population.”

“The Earth is Not a Closed System”

“The earth is not a closed system,” says Paul Saffo, the chair of the futures track at Singularity University and a consulting associate professor at Stanford University. “However food and agriculture are a special case. The gains we’re getting from agriculture are going to come from new efficiencies. And the single most important component is information.”

Hardware and software — from satellites to in-soil sensors — now drive smart farming. In addition, “liveware” or genetic engineering continues to create the kinds of species that produce higher yield foods both in traditional farming areas and in harsh or changing environments.

Indeed, this approach to agricultural technology — the “agricultural intensification” that Boserup advocated — is now a multidisciplinary effort that brings together crop, fisheries and livestock scientists and geneticists; molecular biologists; engineers; mathematicians; politicians; agribusiness; food distributors and farmers.

“We need to use every tool possible to maximize sustainable food production to meet food security challenges,” says Jonathan S. West, a plant pathologist at the Plant Biology and Crop Science Department, at Rothamsted Research, one of the oldest agricultural research centers in Harpenden, north of London.

Who will win the Malthus-Boserup debate over the next several decades? All indications are that the theory of population growth spurring innovation will continue. According to Boserup, the rate of growth of the food supply may vary, but it never reaches its carrying capacity because every time that limit approaches, there is an invention or development that causes the food supply to increase.

And at DuPont, that’s why we are committed to applying science and engineering to develop new solutions for helping provide enough food for the growing world.