Pick Up

1000. Food Innovations and the Earth System

Related Research Program


1000. Food Innovations and the Earth System 


Since its inception in March 2020, Pick Up,  a platform dedicated to scientific discourse, has been exploring topics related to global food security, especially those concerning climate change, biodiversity loss, and food systems. Today, for Pick Up’s 1000th article, I present an essay on science, technology, and innovation in agri-food systems (‘food innovations’) and their interrelations with the Earth System. 

Food production is bounded by local environmental constraints, consisting of climatic factors such as temperature, precipitation, and sunlight; soil factors such as soil fertility, chemical and physical characteristics; and biological factors such as pests and diseases, weeds, symbioses, etc. Since the start of agriculture, humans have developed food innovations, including crop and animal domestication on the one hand, and agronomic management practices on the other, to overcome local production environment constraints. Indeed, during the early period of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th to 19th centuries, an English economist, Malthus, predicted the exponential nature of population growth against the arithmetic nature of the growth of food supply, resulting in the reduction of living standards to the point of triggering a population decline. History has proved this theory wrong, mostly as a result of food innovations. Malthus’s theory may have assumed food production was based on the limited availability of land. In reality, food production has seen a dramatic increase over the past century, thanks to multiple technological advancements, especially chemical fertilizers and high-yielding crop varieties, which have improved yield per area cultivated. In many cases, the pace of the global food production increase has surpassed the pace of population growth, not only enabling the eradication of famine but also fundamentally transforming human society, including urbanization and globalization. How have food innovations overcome local production environment constraints and led to the formation of the globalized food systems we see today? 

Let us first take a look at soil conditions as one of the most critical local production environment constraints. The maintenance of soil fertility is essential for stable food production. In the early 20th century, the invention of the Haber-Bosch process enabled the synthesis of atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia fertilizer. The industrial production of chemical fertilizer, with the slogan "bread from air," facilitated a dramatic increase in food production to feed the growing world population while driving the deviation of a nitrogen boundary in a biogeochemical cycle. In the mid-20th century, famine was still rife in some parts of tropical countries. Increasing the supply of staple crops to eradicate famine was the priority of agricultural research agendas at the time. At international agricultural research organizations, inter-disciplinary teams consisting of experts in breeding, agronomy, and soil science were formed to jointly develop high-yielding staples. Priority was given to the development of crop varieties with the following traits: wide adaptability to a range of agroecological conditions (overcoming climatic factors), high responsiveness to fertilizer application, thus high yielding (overcoming soil factors), and tolerance to diverse pests and diseases (overcoming biological factors).  As such, modern breeding allowed the overcoming of local production environment constraints, but the success in the wide dissemination of modern varieties also led to the narrowing of crop genetic diversity

The wide adaptation of high-yielding modern varieties across the continents, in combination with the high application of chemical fertilizers, contributed to the eradication of famine. This impact, on a global scale, is often referred to as the ‘Green Revolution.’ Over the past 50 years, from the 1970s to the 2020s, the world population has doubled from 4 billion to 8 billion, but despite this rapid growth, increasingly efficient agricultural production systems have managed to outpace the demand for food. Given the extreme heterogeneity in local production environment constraints, including climatic, soil, and biological factors, along with associated socio-economic conditions, not all regions in the world could adopt the Green Revolution-type food innovations. The adaptability of such innovations requires certain conditions to be simultaneously met (link in Japanese), including relatively homogeneous production environments conducive to economies of scale for the application of high-yielding varieties and chemical fertilizers. Consequently, regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, whose local production environment constraints, including climatic, soil, and biological factors, are highly heterogeneous, have not benefited from high-yielding varieties and chemical fertilizers. Agriculture sectors in such regions are chronically suffering from stagnant productivity, increasing dependence on food imports. At the same time, farmland expansion to feed a growing population has been accompanied by deforestation and biodiversity loss. Adding to the inherent heterogeneity in local production environment constraints, the differences in the adaptability of 20th-century food innovations have defined the extreme diversity of farming systems across the world

Today’s food systems have posed problems to human and planetary health. Among the 8 billion people in the world, approximately 10% are estimated to live in hunger, while about 3 billion suffer from the other forms of malnutrition – overweight and obesity. Food production systems responding to such nutrition challenges are responsible for overstepping six of the nine “planetary boundaries,” including N/P cycles, freshwater use, land use change, biodiversity loss, and chemical uses. If including food loss and waste, food systems account for a third of the global anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Under the feedback loops of the planetary boundaries and global boiling, the once stable Earth System with a balanced biogeochemical cycle has become increasingly destabilized, with increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather (disruption of climatic factors), soil degradation (disruption of soil factors), and pest and disease outbreaks (biological factors). All have exerted unprecedented pressures on local production environment constraints, whose climatic, soil, and biological factors have faced multiple biotic and abiotic stresses. 

In the next 30 years, the world's population is projected to grow by 2 billion to reach nearly 10 billion. Food systems also need to take urgent actions to adapt to the escalating climate crisis while mitigating climate change. Food innovations should play critical roles in building resilient food systems under emerging global-scale environmental constraints, i.e., the planetary boundaries in the era of global boiling, through food innovations to promote crop breeding and agronomic technologies that can contribute to increasing the resilience of local production systems.  

In order to build resilient food systems in the era of global boiling, we need to conserve and restore the diversity of nutritiously rich genetic resources and harness their inherent resilience to biotic and abiotic stresses. Accelerating the application of genetic diversity in crop breeding requires modalities to facilitate the conservation and use of genetic resources. At the same time, ensuring food security and the stability of the Earth System requires healthy soil for a sustainable global biogeochemical cycle. In realizing food innovations, multidisciplinary approaches that transcend the boundaries of conventional fields such as soil, agronomy, biology, engineering sciences, and socioeconomics should be key.


Contributor: IIYAMA Miyuki (Information Program)



Related Pages