The future of agriculture: Two scenarios

Here are links to two scenarios for the future of agriculture. The first, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is the “expected future.” It assumes zero disruptive change, a mere mid-point extrapolation of current conditions.  The second is from a group of scientists concerned about the effects of global climate change on agriculture — including lower crop yields, flooding and crop disease — and thinking about the possibilities of biotech to deal with that.

I. The Expected Future

USDA Agricultural Projections to 2019, February 2010

This report provides long-run (10-year) projections for the agricultural sector through 2019. Projections cover agricultural commodities, agricultural trade, and aggregate indicators of the sector, such as farm income and food prices.

What’s most interesting is the set of disclaimers that begins the report:

The scenario presented in this report is not a USDA forecast about the future. Instead, it is a conditional, long-run scenario about what would be expected to happen under a continuation of current farm legislation and specific assumptions about external conditions. Critical long-term assumptions are made for U.S. and international macroeconomic conditions, U.S. and foreign agricultural and trade policies, and growth rates of agricultural productivity in the United States and abroad. The report assumes that there are no domestic or external shocks that would affect global agricultural supply and demand. Normal weather is assumed. Changes in any of these assumptions can significantly affect the projections, and actual conditions that emerge will alter the outcomes. (Emphasis mine.)

II. A Future with Disruptive Change

Global climate change requires a radical rethinking of the future of agriculture, according to a group of scientists.

The research team, led by Nina Federoff, science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, suggests that there is a “critical need to get beyond popular biases against the use of agricultural biotechnology,” as well as explore the potential of aquaculture and maximize agricultural production in dry and saline areas. Their recommendations will appear as a perspective piece titled “Radically Rethinking Agriculture for the 21st Century” in the Feb. 12 issue of the journal Science.

They point to the 2003 heat wave in Europe, which caused just a 3.5-degree rise in the average summer temperature, but killed 30,000 to 50,000 people. Gaining much less attention was the resulting 20 percent to 36 percent decrease in the yields of grains and fruit that summer.

“That dramatic drop in yield is just a foreshadowing of the challenges that lie ahead for agriculture during the 21st century, as temperatures rise and another 3 billion people are added to the global population,” said UC Davis plant pathologist Pamela Ronald, a co-author on the perspective piece. Ronald and her laboratory are working on developing a new generation of crops that can better resist diseases and tolerate environmental stresses, including flooding.

“Global warming will alter the pattern of diseases among crops and also cause intense, periodic flooding,” Ronald said. “The good news is that we have the ability, through conventional breeding and genetic engineering, to generate new varieties of our existing food crops that can better adapt to these environmental changes.

She noted, for example, that her research collaborators recently released a new rice variety for Bangladesh and India that can better withstand flooding, an environmental stress that reduces yearly yields by 4 million tons — enough to feed 30 million people in these two countries.

Other recommendations:

  • Re-evaluating restrictive regulatory policies that now govern the use of genetically modified crops;
  • Establishing a public facility within the U.S. Department of Agriculture for safety-testing genetically modified crops;
  • Integrating agriculture and aquaculture systems in order to sustainably raise crops, livestock and fish; and
  • Developing crops and productive farming systems for extremely dry and saline regions.


Update: I subsequently discovered that the USDA previously issued a report on the effects of climate change on agriculture.  From Bloomberg’s account:

Global warming could reduce U.S. corn yields 1.5 percent in the next 30 years and harm the livestock industry, according to the initial draft of the first major climate report from the Agriculture Department in five years.

More wildfires, longer droughts and greater heat stress on animals will disrupt U.S. agriculture, forcing farmers to change land and water management practices, the department said. U.S. crops were valued at $122.4 billion in 2006, with corn accounting for $33.8 billion, the USDA said.

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