Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Food for Thought: The Case for Science-Based Farming

Over the past decade, the issue of food production has rightfully gained a lot of attention. Documentaries like Food Inc. and the modern animal welfare movement have gotten us all thinking about what we eat and how it is produced. While this is a great thing, generally speaking, getting informed about the food you eat doesn’t help anyone if your knee-jerk reaction to new information is to abandon all the progress we’ve made over the past century.

The world of 2015 is very different from the one of a hundred years ago. The global population has doubled, and doubled again. As we begin to rethink food production and learn from past mistakes, it is tempting to romanticize a time in the past when everything was done by hand without the use of pesticides. The simple fact is, that system doesn’t work in 2015 if you want to feed everyone; but a more important question is: would we even want it to?

Setting aside for a minute the ways in which we raise animals for food, let’s focus on fruits and vegetables. The driving goal for food production needs to be sustainability. While it may be easy to produce a bumper crop by dumping harmful pesticides on every farmer’s field, that doesn’t help anybody if the field is radioactive the next year and the nearby ocean is so full of contaminated runoff that the fish have five eyes and are made of poison. Sustainability is the idea that we should farm as efficiently as possible in a way that doesn’t waste resources or make it impossible for people in the future to grow the same food in the same place.

So which is more sustainable: the classic version of farming with overalls and hand-picked food, or the cold, machine-driven methods of today where tomatoes live in greenhouses and are only ever outside as we move them from the truck into the grocery store? As much as we all love overalls, it may be time to relegate them to the wardrobes of urban, loft-living art students.

Let’s continue looking at tomatoes, since most people have tried to grow them at some point. If you’ve ever potted a tomato plant on your balcony, you know how tough it can be to get even a single snack out of a plant, never mind a pot of pasta sauce. Modern tomato farms use greenhouses to direct as much light as possible onto plants. They recycle carbon dioxide from industrial practices to speed plant growth, and they don’t need to use much pesticide because they are enclosed. The upshot is that they can grow 70 kg (154 lbs) of tomatoes in one square meter of soil. Try producing that on your balcony.

Modern farms can also be insanely efficient with water, if they have a mind to. In an enclosed system where water condenses on the walls of a greenhouse and is collected and recycled, one kg (2.2 lbs) of tomatoes can be grown using between 4 and 6 liters (1 – 1.6 gallons) of water.  By comparison, farms that allow water to evaporate away – I’m looking at you, overalls – need as much as 60 liters (16 gallons) to grow the same amount.

One area where technically advanced farming is at a disadvantage is in transporting food to the places it needs to go for people to buy it. Large industrial farms are located away from cities where large plots of farmable land exist. However, even here science and technology have made things better. Foods in transport are often stored with gases, chips, or in bags that ensure they ripen at just the right time, leading to proportionally less waste than traditional farmers can manage. The carbon footprint of shipping these foods is also a problem, but as electric vehicle technology improves and the world moves towards renewable energy systems, those impacts can also be reduced.

The lesson here is that knowledge and technology will help us feed the world in a sustainable way and we shouldn’t shun improvements to farming processes on principle alone. With the right policies in place to ensure that corporate greed does not win out over environmental sustainability and healthy produce, high-tech farming will save lives and keep us all fed.