The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the U.S. National Climate Assessment have drawn attention to the connection between climate change and food security, pointing out the former’s net negative impact on global yields for wheat and corn, which are already beginning to decline. Crop yields, as well as fish catches and other food production, could drop off dramatically. Yet to feed 9.6 billion people by midcentury, we have to increase food productivity in a way that sustains the planet as well as people.
This will require what’s often called a new “Green Revolution.” In the 20th century, the “old” Green Revolution succeeded in raising yields and increasing per capita food consumption as population grew (though it's disputed whether it significantly reduced the number of chronically hungry people). But it has also depleted soil and water resources, and caused pollution, resistant pests and diseases that in turn are threatening yields. That pattern is playing out around the world today, for example inthe Punjab.
But if the old Green Revolution is ending, what will take its place? Will it be a “greener” green revolution (like what theFood and Agriculture Organization envisions), a higher-tech “green data revolution” (big seed companies like Monsanto are investing in abig data approach) or some combination of high- and low-tech approaches?
This is a big, global question, but here’s an instructive case in point: coffee production in Central America and the Caribbean, which is currently being ravaged by climate-related disease.
Coffee farmers are dealing with the worst outbreak in 40 years of a leaf-rust called roya, which warmer, wetter conditions favor. It has spread rapidly, reducing harvests 30-70 percent and slashing production by hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when coffee prices had already hit a seven-year low. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras declared states of emergency over it, and project a loss of 500,000 jobs.
Green Revolution chemical input technologies aren’t able to prevent huge crop losses from roya, but it turns out that sustainable practices like shade growth and natural soil inputs can.
I was recently in Guatemala, where roya threatens 70 percent of the coffee-planted area, and saw how a sustainable certified farm called Finca Medina is outsmarting the disease. Its shade growth conditions are less favorable to fungus. Compared with conventional farms, it has better plant nutrition and better soil management, putting coffee husks, waste cardboard and its coffee mill effluent (water containing enzymes and natural bacteria) back into the soil. It treats roya using natural soil inputs like gypsum and lime, then spraying fungicide just once a year. Its competitors lose 25 percent or more of their harvest while spraying chemicals five times a year, but Finca Medina has 0 percent loss and 0 percent rust using minimal chemicals, relying primarily on sustainable practices. It also taught these techniques to dozens of small-holder farms that supply its mill. Those farms lost 5-10 percent of their crop, more than Finca Medina, but still a dramatic result.
To feed the midcentury population without untenable environmental and climate impact, we will need to do what Finca Medina did: achieve high yields on existing cropland without clearing more forest or otherwise damaging the environment, even amid growing pressure from climate change and other environmental problems. Developing countries must bring their yields on existing cropland to 75 percent or higher of their potential yields, and that will raise global food supply 28-58 percent. Certified sustainable agriculture provides a large-scale demonstration — over 25 years and 100 countries — that sustainable techniques can raise yields 20-70 percent.
Technology remains important; new input technology as well as other technologies like digital connectivity and apps for farmers will be part of agriculture’s future. But we can’t rely on technology alone to raise yields, or to solve 21st century problems like roya. It needs to be balanced with a larger set of practices. Some of the innovations needed may be more along the lines of social technologies or ways to disseminate know-how rather than high-tech interventions. For example, smallholder farmers need to learn basicfinancial literacy and tracking skills so they can manage production better and access loans to make improvements.
So the next Green Revolution may be less about high-tech advances in chemistry or genetics than about people rethinking industry norms and incentives, shifting them into alignment with 21st century realities. That will require a more holistic ecosystem approach to farming, raising yields and protecting soil and water. The next paradigm can’t cannibalize forests because they protect our water supplies; it must conserve biodiversity because without it pollinators would die out. Beyond farming practices, we’ll need landscape-level planning for interlocking, complementary kinds of land use over wide areas.
I’d argue the future of food won’t be high-tech in the same sense as the last Green Revolution was. It will be innovative in the way Finca Medina is innovative. To meet growing food demand more sustainably, we need to scale up that kind of innovation fast.
Tensie Whelan is the president of the Rainforest Alliance. She was previously the vice president of conservation information at the National Audubon Society, executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, and managing editor of Ambio, an international environmental journal based in Stockholm. Whelan also serves on the the advisory board of Social Accountability International as well as the Unilever Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board, and she is the co-chair of the Sustainable Food Lab's steering committee.