Complex agriculture, keep it simple

I like when I read or hear about something that is potentially complex or very technical and it is explained in very simple terms. The over simplification may not be 100 per cent accurate but it helps me create mental pictures and better understand the message.

So it was good hear well known Western Canada agrologist, futurist, and serious supporter of leading agricultural technology, Rob Saik, being interviewed for a

Meeting the 2050 food challenge

B.C. Simon Fraser University podcast called Conversations that Matter. It was recorded in late May. I came across it on You Tube. Saik was speaking with podcast host and veteran broadcaster Stuart McNish. The general conversation was about embracing technology to the benefit of agricultural production and meeting society’s food needs over the next 30 years.

Here are a few mental images I came away with.

FOOD DEMAND

We’ve all heard about the challenge ahead of producing sufficient food to feed an every growing world population expected to increase from the current 7.6 billion people to about 9.5 billion people by 2050. Saik said it was equivalent of all food produced over the past 10,000 years and now having to produce that much over the next 30 years. All areas of crop and livestock production will have to increase by 60 to 70 per cent.

LOOK AT THE FACTS

Agriculture is under pressure from vocal critics protesting the environmental impact of chemicals and use of genetically modified organisms to increase crop production. Critics also target the impact of livestock production “cattle are killing the planet” —concerned about the environmental footprint and the contribution of animal agriculture to greenhouse gas production. Saik’s points:

On crop production

  • Genetic modification is safe technology that often involves turning on or off genetic switches in a plant to enhance or suppress a particular characteristic. Other plant breeding technologies such as mutagenics which some critics consider more natural, (there are about 3,200 organic crops that have been developed through some degree of mutagenics) – a process that often involves the use of nuclear radiation, or exposure to carcinogenic chemicals to achieve changes in plant traits. Which is better?
  • Technology can measure residues as so many parts per million, then in parts per billion and now parts per trillion. What does that mean? Saik describes one part per million as the equivalent of one second of time in 11.5 days, while one part per billion is one second in 32 years. Some one with an agenda can make 100 parts per billion sound pretty serious or damaging compared to 10 parts per million, but really what does it mean? Nothing.
  • The herbicide glyphosate gets a bum wrap from critics because of unproven claims that it poses a risk to human health — first science doesn’t support those claims and critics ignore the greater good of the herbicide. Saik asks are we better off to use a pop can amount of herbicide to control weeds over a football field, or would it be better to apply tillage to that field four or five times over the growing season, or perhaps use four or five pop cans full of different herbicides to obtain the same weed control as glyphosate? “People don’t want to think about the total toxicology load, or the soil degradation from tillage because that’s gets complicated”, says Saik. “It’s easier just to say that Roundup is bad.”

On the livestock side:

  • There were an estimated 100 million ruminants on the planet before Christopher Columbus arrived in America and there is roughly the same number of ruminants today.
  • Cattle don’t produce greenhouse gas as much as it is part of a cycle. Grass (crops) rely on carbon dioxide to grow. Cows eat crops and grass and belch out methane gas. The half-life of methane gas in the atmosphere is about 10 years, so in about 10 years that methane converts back to carbon, which is captured by plants and also is stored in the soil and the cycle can repeat itself.
  • The half-life of methane gas is 10 years while the half-life of carbon dioxide is 1000 years. So any measures that help to improve carbon capture, such as zero till and maintaining permanent or perennial forage crops (pasture and feed for livestock) that capture carbon dioxide is a good thing.

Saik says science and technology can produce the food needed or the next 30 years, the challenge might be about “being allowed to produce it”, as agricultural policy is increasingly dictated by voters who have no connection to agriculture and don’t understand the production complexities and natural variables that affect crop and livestock production.

LATEST BOOK

And aside from the podcast above, Saik covers many of these points in his new book “Food 5.0 – How we feed the future“.

Throughout the chapters Saik blocks out a few rants:

On food marketing — “It bothers me that many consumers are scared of food. It bothers me that unscrupulous marketers are preying on the fear of the ignorant. It bothers me that people will pay way more money for adjectives on food labels than the food in the package.”

Forget the “good old days” — “I am always amused when I come across ideologically driven people professing that we should somehow go back in time to simpler agriculture, where you are “one with the land” and you work the soil with your bare hands. I know two things: that kind of agriculture will not feed a 2050 population and I know that they have never harvested a half acre of potatoes by hand.”

Lee Hart is a field editor with Grainews based in Calgary. Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]

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