Visionary farming technology has its place, says futurist Ramez Naam, but some of the best long-range tools for boosting food production may already be here.
Robot tractors. Crops that sprout from dry, salty soil. Plants that fertilize themselves.
Ramez Naam envisions a farming future that would make the Jetsons proud. But feeding a growing planet, says the Microsoft computer scientist-turned-futurist and author, will also call for some decidedly low-tech solutions, many of them already in use.
At some point out there—maybe 2100, maybe 2150—worldwide demand for food will actually start declining. At that point, we could actually start shrinking the amount of land we use to grow food, and start re-wilding the planet.”
— Ramez Naam
While researching his 2013 book “The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet,” Naam noted a grim-sounding statistic: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, food production will have to increase 70 percent by 2050 to feed the world’s inhabitants. That may sound daunting, but Naam says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that a secure food future is achievable. “The problems we face are incredibly serious, but not insurmountable,” says Naam, who lectures on energy, environment and innovation at Singularity University in California’s Silicon Valley. “In fact, that’s been the state of our global food situation for most of the last 200 years.”
Planting the seeds
Naam’s first brush with farming was up close, if not personal. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he came to the United States as a toddler and grew up in the small town of Flora, Ill. “Where our backyard ended, somebody else’s farm began,” he says. “I would mow the yard, and on the other side of an invisible dividing line between the properties, a giant combine harvester would mow the corn or soy.”
At the time, though, he was more interested in science and science fiction than food or farming: “I stayed in my room and read a lot,” he says.
Entranced by computers at an early age, Naam opted for a career in programming and later spent a total of 13 years on staff at Microsoft, working on high-profile projects like Microsoft Outlook, Internet Explorer and the Bing search engine. But other interests competed for his attention, and he left Microsoft in 2010. He wrote a nonfiction book about using biotechnology to enhance human abilities, and followed it up with a pair of sci-fi novels.
For years, Naam had also been reading everything he could find on the topic of natural resources, simply to satisfy a personal curiosity. But he says most books on the subject tended to argue the extremes—dismissing concerns on one end, or arguing that the world is doomed to run out of food and energy on the other. In his view, both extremes missed the mark.
“We have serious problems, but everywhere I looked, I saw solutions,” he says. “I realized there was a book in me that said some things I didn’t think anyone else had said.”
Minding the crop-yield gap
Naam may be a sci-fi lover and a technology buff, but many of his forecasts about the future of agriculture are surprisingly low-tech. In fact, he predicts most of the gains in food production will come from just a few basic initiatives. “Number one: We have to help farmers around the world grow more food on the land they have,” he says.
The amount of food harvested from a single acre varies tremendously from place to place, he points out. “An acre of high-quality land in the United States may produce three or four times as much food as an acre of high-quality land in Bangladesh, for instance. A whole lot of the gains that are easily available to us are in closing that yield gap,” he says.
Gap-shrinking technologies are already here, says Naam—and they’re anything but flashy. Modern fertilizers, better irrigation systems and access to farm equipment translate to healthier plants, bigger yields and more food. Something as simple as a tractor can boost crop yields dramatically and help lift developing world farmers out of poverty, he says.
Naam acknowledges the economic hurdles to implementing his ideas. For too many farmers, such technology is simply out of reach right now. But little by little, he says, poverty is receding. In the meantime, biotechnology may be the answer because genetically modified crops can be a cost-effective way to boost yields.
“It’s a lot cheaper to spread a seed than to build an irrigation system or a tractor,” he notes. “And genetically modified crops can reduce the need for some kinds of expensive inputs that farmers use, like pesticides and fertilizer.”
Genetic engineering will also be important, Naam predicts, in a world that’s increasingly short on water. In the coming years, water stress will be the biggest challenge facing food producers, and climate change will only turn up the pressure. “We have to grow more food with less water,” he says.
Once again, says Naam, we can work toward that goal by promoting tools that already exist. Spray irrigation, for instance, uses less water than flood irrigation, although the latter is still used in many places. Even a simple change like spraying fields at night, when less water is likely to be lost to evaporation, can make a measurable difference. “Just spreading knowledge is a big thing,” he says.
Smart technology for smarter farming
Many of Naam’s first-line solutions for the future may sound as if they’re not too different from the present, but he’s also excited about new tools and technologies being developed. In fact, some are starting to be introduced to the marketplace, he says, “and they’re not as science fiction as they sound.” Coming soon to a farm near you: tractors with infrared cameras that can detect which individual plants need fertilizer, and drones flying overhead to determine which parts of the fields are stressed for water, he says.
Naam also expects big progress in biotechnology. He’s hopeful that scientists will successfully engineer plants that can better withstand the droughts and heat waves born of climate change. He imagines crop varieties that can thrive in salty or alkaline soils, allowing them to grow in fields considered unsuitable for farming.
He’s also excited about efforts to create crops that can, in effect, fertilize themselves. Some plants, such as soybeans, harbor symbiotic bacteria that allow the plants to “fix” nitrogen from the environment into a biologically available form. Scientists hope to engineer other common crops, like wheat or rice, to perform this trick. Such technology would be a boon to poor farmers who can’t afford topical fertilizers. And because self-fertilizing crops would require little, if any, excess fertilizer, the technology could also reduce nitrogen run-off from farms, which pollutes waterways and creates oxygen-starved “dead zones” devoid of aquatic life. “It’s an environmental and food production win-win,” says Naam.
And he expects plenty more high-tech wins down the line. Eventually population growth will level off, he says, probably sometime in the second half of this century. “At some point out there—maybe 2100, maybe 2150— worldwide demand for food will actually start declining. At that point, we could actually start shrinking the amount of land we use to grow food, and start re-wilding the planet.”