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Improved Seed, Ecological Farming Needed to Enhance Food Security

Modern genetic tools and the most effective science-based ecological farming practices are needed if modern agriculture is to feed 9 billion people by 2050, experts said at a AAAS forum.


Pamela C. Ronald
[Credit: Debbie Aldridge/University of California, Davis]

Already 40% of the Earth—an area about the size of South America—is cleared for farming and little arable land remains, said Pamela C. Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis. “Agriculture needs our collective help and all appropriate tools,” she said, to feed the swelling world population without further degrading the environment.

It’s a challenge that Ronald and her husband Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, describe in their 2008 book, Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. “We believe that the polarizing debates on seed technologies versus farming practices are distracting from the key challenge—a healthy and productive agricultural system,” she said.

Ronald delivered the annual Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture on 21 June at AAAS. Established in 2010, the lecture honors Riley, a prominent 19th-century entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is endowed by the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation.

AAAS President Nina V. Fedoroff, a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University, posed a provocative question to a panel of experts following Ronald’s lecture: Can farming double its productivity in the coming decades while reducing its ecological impact?

Ronald detailed the mounting challenges for meeting this goal: erosion, lack of fresh water, pesticide poisoning of farm workers, dwindling rural investment, and shifting rainfall and drought patterns due to global climate change.

These factors have driven farmers to expand their farms into previously uncultivated areas, Ronald said, “destroying vast quantities of wilderness and wildlife each year.”

Increased use of new seed and plant varieties, including those developed through genetic engineering, can help increase productivity while limiting negative environmental, economic, and social impacts of agriculture, Ronald said. She counted genetically engineered cotton in Arizona and papayas in Hawaii among the successes of this approach, citing dramatic reductions in insecticide use and disease among these crops.

“After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of nearly 2 billion acres planted,” Ronald said, “not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment has resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.”

Resistance to this technology is beginning to abate, especially as the links between regional food crises and political instability become more apparent, said panelist L. Val Giddings, a senior fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “One of the most important barriers to overcome is dogma,” Giddings said. “The people will not tolerate being kept hungry.”

But planting of higher-yielding genetically improved seeds that require less water and insecticide is not sufficient to address all agricultural challenges. In Ronald’s view, sustainability can be maximized only by combining the use of improved seed with ecologically sound agricultural practices.

“The key point is that no matter how powerful the seed technology,” she said, “the seed must still be integrated with other strategies to manage the diverse spectrum of diseases and pests that attack a crop.”

Joining Giddings on the expert panel were Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute; John D. Hardin Jr.,

a Purdue University trustee and owner of Hardin Farms; and Michael T. Clegg of the University of California, Irvine. The lecture was planned in cooperation with the World Food Prize Foundation and was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture;

Case IH; DuPont; Mars, Incorporated; and the Norman Borlaug Institute for Inter-national Agriculture.    —Warren Leary