In 1798, Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he predicted that while population would grow geometrically, food production would grow only arithmetically.
In simpler terms, the world’s population would quickly exceed our ability to feed it.
According to Malthus, this would lead to “sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague” and, finally, “gigantic inevitable famine.”
Despite this dire prediction, over 200 years have passed and agricultural innovation has managed to stay ahead of the population curve.
In the mid-1900s, Malthus’ prediction became an issue of concern.
The ballooning population was threatening global food security. This threat was perhaps most severe in India, a nation on the brink of mass famine.
In response, Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, led a series of initiatives that are now known as the Green Revolution.
Through a combination of plant breeding, synthetic fertilizers, crop chemicals, and, more recently, genetically modified traits, agricultural output was dramatically increased.
Borlaug and others, now credited with saving over a billion lives, developed the technologies that have come to define modern agriculture.
While the Green Revolution may have staved off a global food crisis, many of its technologies have led to environmental and health concerns.
With her novel Silent Spring, Rachel Carson called attention to the environmental dangers of a pesticide that gained popularity in the 1950s, DDT. By 1972, this chemical was banned for agricultural use in the US.
Beyond this, nitrogen run-off from synthetic fertilizers has led to algal blooms in oceans, lakes, and rivers. These blooms deplete oxygen levels and result in dead zones, where aquatic plants and animals can no longer survive. Conservationists and regulators are scrambling to address this.
On top of these widespread concerns, innovation in the four agricultural technologies that enabled that Green Revolution has largely plateaued.
These technologies appear to be incapable of feeding the world’s expected population by 2050.
So we are faced with a dual-challenge: how do we increase the world’s agricultural productivity, and how do we do it while swapping out many of the technologies that are responsible for our most recent yield gains?
Fortunately, emerging technologies — particularly those stemming from microbiology and information technology — are allowing us to increase productivity in a way that is more environmentally sustainable, better for consumer health, and better for grower profitability.
Connecting consumer preference to farm profitability is essential for driving the adoption of these new technologies.
The organic market highlights the power of this connection.
In specialty fruits and vegetables, organic consumers have demonstrated a willingness to pay a premium for crops grown in a way that benefits the environment.
This premium provides an incentive for farmers to grow crops using organic methods, despite these being more difficult to grow and often resulting in lower yields.
Consumer willingness to express a point of view with their wallets can directly impact the management decisions of growers.
For most of today’s commodity crops, there is a pronounced disconnect between consumer preferences and growers' practices.
The bulk of the world’s calories come from wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans. Most of these crops are produced and traded as commodities, where there is no differentiation in quality and no premium associated with environmentally sustainable or health-conscious farming.
But as consumers become better informed and more interested in the sources of their food, they will influence even commodity crops.
This movement has begun.
Manufacturers, such as General Mills, Mars, and Kellogg, are under enough consumer pressure to institute the labelling of genetically modified ingredients.
Retailers, such as Patagonia, are successfully selling products at premiums after implementing environmentally-conscious standards. Patagonia was early to this trend, having used exclusively organic cotton in their popular outdoor apparel since 1996.
Today’s digital technologies will allow for a more direct connection between consumer preferences and how our food is grown.
With virtual supply chains, our food system will see a tremendous increase in transparency.
Physical goods and information will flow freely and easily, making everything traceable. We will be able to precisely track each bushel of grain, from the field to our breadbox, understanding how it was produced.
This will empower consumers to make well-informed decisions.
It will empower growers as well.
For the first time, commodity crop farmers will be able to change their management practices and sell at higher prices. They will be able to break out of a commodity business and produce a more valuable crop — one for which consumer demand is high.
The essential connection between agricultural practice and consumer preference will dramatically accelerate the adoption of new sustainable technologies in agriculture.
The resulting reimagined agriculture will allow us to not just feed the world, but to do so in a way that is better for farmers, better for consumers, and better for the planet.
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