AfS at 5: Five visions for the future of food and agriculture

By Joan Conrow

August 30, 2019

As humanity strives to feed a growing population amid the challenges of climate change, increased urbanization, global trade barriers, shrinking natural resources, fickle consumers and an aging farmer population, five visionaries share their thoughts on the future of food and agriculture.

Agility

“One word could define the future of agriculture: agility. We have long depended on one size fits all solutions to complex problems in agriculture, and ignored the social realities and challenges faced by smallholders, in particular women and marginalized groups. Each new technology adds to our toolbox, yet it is not the toolbox but rather how we use it that will define the future of agriculture. If we turn the paradigm on its head to put farmers first, accept and understand diversity and social complexity that surrounds agriculture and respond with agile, customized, responsive breeding systems, then we may get one step closer to transformation. We can no longer leave women and young people behind. They are the future that new technologies should be designed around.”

Dr. Hale Ann Tufan is the 2019 recipient of the Norman E. Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application and  principal investigator of the Gender-responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT) project at Cornell University.

Shifting food trends

“The food and agricultural landscape will change more in the next 30 years than it has in the last 200 years. Technologies are emerging that will revolutionize crop production and supply chains, upending the global food system.  And yet, as fast as these changes occur, they will pale in comparison to the disruption caused by shifting food trends. The economics of supply and demand will give way to the psychology of consumer demands. While most food companies and agribusinesses are ill-prepared to meet this challenge, the future of the planet depends on their response.”

Jack Bobo, founder and CEO of Futurity, is an internationally recognized food futurist and speaker who was named one of the 100 most influential people in biotechnology by Scientific American.

Urban agriculture

“From what I’ve learned, what gives me the most hope is how people are rethinking agriculture and what that looks like, say, in a city like Chicago. Agriculture shouldn’t be something that happens downstate or two hours away from a city’s center. We can grow our food here. Thus, I think we can feed the world’s population by getting people closer to our food system and more involved in the agriculture process by equipping people with the skills and knowledge to sustain themselves. This is most important, especially at a time when climate change has the potential to drastically reduce the food we produce through agriculture.”

Dejah Powell, a 2018 Cornell University graduate, spent a summer interning at Sweet Water Foundation, a local nonprofit that grows food in Chicago, among other activities. She also partnered with Gardeneers to bring a school garden to her former elementary school. She is intrigued by the question: Why do food environments in urban environments like Chicago look the way they do and how might we transform said food systems?

Tapping biology’s potential

“We should be embracing genetic engineering and GMOs as one of the most important technologies we have available to us to improve everything — food, clothing, fragrances, medicine, really everything we make. Growing things is the manufacturing technology for Earth. When you think about all that amazing technology out there in nature, well, we’ve just gotten access to the code. What a gift. Now that we have the code, we can engineer what we want. All physical goods will end up being made with biology. That is the obvious endpoint of this. That’s the potential. People don’t even know it’s possible yet.”

Jason Kelly, founder of the microbe engineering company Ginkgo Bioworks, believes biotechnology can help humanity shift away from the wasteful, extractive model that characterizes our currently unsustainable approach to manufacturing and industry.

Investing in innovation

“Advances in agriculture can have a big impact on the lives of the world’s poorest. I’m particularly excited about new research from the RIPE project.  I wish agricultural innovation got as much attention as the impact on climate change from electricity, because its success is just as critical to stopping climate change. Future changes in income and population may come close to doubling the current environmental impacts of the food system. I believe creative, scalable solutions to this challenge are out there, and now is the time to invest in their R&D.”

Bill Gates is the founder of Microsoft Corp. and an investor, author, philanthropist and humanitarian. These comments were originally published on his Gates Notes blog.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a major funder of the Cornell  Alliance for Science.