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Celia VanHollebeke (9 months old) enjoys her first handfuls of dirt while visiting her grandfather, Butch VanHollebeke, at his farm in Kahlotus.
Photo taken by Amy VanHollebeke

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FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Will agriculture save the planet before it destroys it?

At the 2015 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention, Intrexon's Jack Bobo asked a question that had growers buzzing

January 2016
By Trista Crossley


Jack Bobo started and ended his 2015 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention speech somewhat provocatively.

Bobo is a senior vice president at Intrexon, a synthetic biotechnology company that owns, among others, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which is the company behind the nonbrowning, GMO Arctic Apple, and AquaBounty Technologies, which raises GMO salmon. He began his speech by asking the question, can agriculture save the planet before it destroys it? He ended his speech with this statement:

“The next 35 years are not just the most important 35 years there have ever been in the history of agriculture…They are the most important 35 years there will ever be in the history of agriculture, and that’s why now matters.”

Bobo’s point, that the next 35 years are the most important years in the history of agriculture, stems from a study done by statistician Hans Rosling that says the most children who will ever be born in a given year were born in 2014. From 2014 onward, the average fertility rate on the planet will begin dropping, and by 2050, it will average two children per woman, less than the replacement rate. The global population will continue to grow, reaching approximately 9 billion by 2050 because people are living longer through better health and nutrition, but slows dramatically after that. Agriculture, Bobo said, needs to maintain productivity growth through 2050 without cutting down the planet’s remaining forests or draining the rivers, lakes and aquifers, because in many ways, “…At that point, we are good forever, because for the first time in human history, we won’t need more food.

“Think about the productivity gains that we’ve had over the last 40 years,” he continued. “If we can go from 2050 to 2100 and produce the same amount of food with 50 percent less water, we can produce more food in 2100 using less water than we do today. That would be amazing. We could produce food using 40 percent less land in 2100. That’s like taking all of Africa out of production. It all requires us to get to 2050 without screwing things up.”

But like any worthwhile quest, Bobo pointed out some of the obstacles in the path that growers need to consider. Here are some excerpts from his speech:

Productivity increases
With the global population set to increase by 2 billion in the next 35 years, growers will need to produce 60 to 70 percent more food by 2050, using less land, less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

“We have to do everything better tomorrow than we are doing it today,” Bobo said.

Policy changes
As the world’s population grows, it also continues to shift more towards urbanization and farther away from the farm. Bobo cited a study that found people in cities tend to think they know more about how food is grown than people in rural areas, and if they ask for policy changes based on what they think they know, it can have a big impact on agriculture.

Global Trends
Bobo talked about two competing trends: the slow food movement versus high-tech agriculture and producing more with less. On one hand, consumers want locally grown food that reduces agriculture’s impact on the environment. On the other hand, they want to be able to trade that food around the world. To make his point, Bobo showed a chart of food production in Europe. Over the last 50 years, food production in many European countries has lagged behind countries like China, the U.S. or India because they’ve chosen the path of low productivity agriculture. It all comes down, he said, to choices and consequences.

“They are trying to protect the local environment by not producing as much food, but they are still eating more food. They just aren’t producing it,” Bobo explained. “So Europe is driving demand in other places because they have to import this food. Over the next 10 years, European agriculture will increase production by just under 4 percent, just ahead of sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, Brazil will increase its food production by 40 percent, driven by demand of its No. 1 export market—Europe. So Europe has exported its environmental footprint for agriculture to the most biodiverse country on the planet. That might not be a good idea.”

The perception of risk
Risk is hazard times exposure, Bobo explained, adding that people are hardwired to react to hazard more than they are to exposure. That’s why more people are afraid of flying (hazard is higher, but exposure is lower) versus driving (hazard is lower but exposure is higher). He redefined the formula for risk as hazard times media exposure equals perception of risk, or the “tweetification” of risk.

“If you look at things people are worried about, like terrorist attacks, then you look at things they should worry about, there is very little correlation between what people worry about and what they should worry about,” he explained. “But there’s a lot of correlation between what they worry about and what they read about or they hear about on TV or on the radio. How can it be any different? You worry about what you hear about.”

Science as a stumbling block
“What I’ve learned is if you lead with science, you will lose with science,” Bobo said. “Science in the beginning of conversation only polarizes the audience. Those that agree with you agree with you more. Those that disagree with you will disagree with you more. Trust has to come first.”

Growers need to personalize their stories and explain why they farm instead of how, he advised. Growers also need to acknowledge other people’s concerns.

“It means you understand they are concerned about something. Then you find ways to connect. We want to reduce the amount of water we use. We want to reduce the amount of fertilizer we use. We might disagree on ways of getting there, but if we connect on all those other things, there is a chance we can find common ground. Eventually, we can build trust. It’s only at the point that we build trust that science has any role to play in the conversation.”

The names we use matter
“When it is a Chinese gooseberry, it is a hairy fruit. When it is a kiwi, it is cute and fuzzy.”

Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias means we look for information that supports what we believe, and we ignore information that doesn’t agree with what we believe. As an example, Bobo talked about a study that said organic agriculture is better than conventional agriculture. The first thing he’d do is to check the study’s credentials and find out who funded it and what methodology was used. However, if he came across a study that said organic agriculture is no more nutritious than conventional ag, what would he do?

“Tweet it,” he said. “You dig a little deeper when it disagrees with what you believe. This is something we all do, we just don’t realize we are doing it.”