Ramez Naam: Agriculture can be a hero of sustainability

The world is facing many sustainability challenges, including food insecurity, depleted water resources and natural disasters like increased flooding and wildfires.

Additionally, as the middle class continues to grow, we will need to produce 60 to 80 percent more food, including more animal protein, by 2050 — and all with less water and land.

Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, Ramez Naam, co-chair of Energy and Environment at Singularity University, believes that the Earth is actually on the path to becoming a Planet of Plenty™ and that agriculture has a critical role to play.

“What if we could go further than just limiting harm (to the planet)?” he asked during ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE19). “What if farmers could be heroes? What if agriculture could help us beat climate change?”

Winds of change: Exponential technologies on-farm

Agriculture has already made great strides with innovations like better seeds, smarter farming practices, more efficient animal nutrition, and increased monitoring and collection of data. The amount of land needed to feed each person has been dropping for decades, as farmers have discovered new ways to produce more with less. We are also currently using less water per person than at any point since World War II.

Naam said that exponential technologies are allowing for even more progress. As these technologies evolve, they become more prevalent, cheaper and democratized, allowing people around the world to utilize them. Wind and solar in particular have the potential to positively impact our energy consumption.

“Winds of change are coming, here comes the sun — however you want to say it, change is coming to the world of energy,” he said.

Importantly, producers around the world are finding ways to integrate these technologies into existing farming practices to create symbiotic relationships with plants and animals for more sustainable agriculture, including:

  • Grazing cattle and other livestock alongside wind turbines and solar panels.
  • Utilizing solar panels to shade vulnerable plants and to offer respite to animals.
  • Adding these technologies to fallow land to create additional revenue streams on-farm, with the added bonus of revenue that is less volatile and can act as a buffer during difficult times.

These practices are complementary to others, such as regenerative agriculture and no tillage, tree intercropping and managed grazing.

Ripple effects, from the animal to the consumer to the environment

Naam pointed out that taking steps to improve agricultural sustainability is also critical for consumers, who are willing to pay more for a product that’s sustainable. What was once a preference is now a demand. There is a perception, he said, that “sustainable” also means “healthy.”

These conversations between different stakeholders and industries are essential for progress, especially as preferences and expectations evolve. Collaboration will be key to helping our planet flourish.

By utilizing our greatest resource, human innovation, Naam is optimistic that agriculture can help create a world of abundance “not by doing more — by doing smarter.”

“Ideas are the only natural resource that we always have more of over time, not less,” he said, “and that’s why I’m an optimist.”

Author: Elise Murrell | Jun 3, 2019