Who Will Do The Hard Work To Enable Sustainable Farming


There is an alarming trend in the relatively obscure field of agricultural science. A major wave of retirements is beginning in both academics and industry, while at the same time the number of people pursuing degrees in applied agricultural sciences is declining. The Weed Science Society of America just released a statement about this, but it has been an obvious trend for a while. This couldn’t happen at a worse time.

Good News/Bad News

The good news is that world population is on track to stabilize at around 9 billion – several billion lower than it once appeared would be the peak. The bad news is that this still represents 2-3 billion more mouths to feed by 2050-60. The good news is that standards of living are on the rise in a great many developing countries. This, along with education for women, is moderates population growth. The bad news is that this means there are hundreds of millions of people now able to eat a “richer” diet, and so the demand for food is increased.

The good news is that over the last 80 or so years there have been remarkable increases in agricultural productivity, which is the only reason that we have been able to feed the world. The bad news is that there have been environmental problems associated with agriculture and some of these could become even more acute as we strain to meet the food demand challenge. The good news is that agricultural scientists have also made great progress in developing agricultural practices that can deliver both the productivity and environmental safety that we need. The bad news is that this sort of research and its practical deployment will require continuing scientific effort – an effort that has already suffered from declining funding and now, increasingly, from a decline in the number of people who have the training needed to do the work.

A Dual Challenge

We need scientists to continue to improve two major categories of farming. One is the “small-holder” agriculture of the developing world. While the solutions for hundreds of millions of these farmers are not the same as for the developed world, they still need appropriate technology development as has been so eloquently pointed out in Robert Paarlberg’s book, “Starved for Science.” It is easy to be a critic of the “Green Revolution” for some of its unintended effects and for some of the socio-political complications that arose. It is much harder to be a scientist who actually helps get it right and help poor people farm better for themselves and for the environment.

The other category is the large-scale, “industrialized” farming systems of the developed world. These systems tend to be demonized, but those that actually are involved with them realize that they can actually be done extremely well from an environmental point of view, and that there is no way to meet global food demand without them. To criticize this sort of farming is both easy and popular. Society is full of self-appointed “activists” who attack agriculture. Activism of this type has a legitimate role, but there is another kind of “activism” which is much harder, far less popular, and yet still indispensible. This is the activity of the people who do the creative science to find solutions for agriculture, and the progressive farmers who make this work in the real world.

Dangerous Complacency

Ours is a society that is extremely out-of-touch with farming. This allows us to believe that “traditional”, “Organic” and “local” farming are viable solutions to the challenge of feeding the world. The marketers, writers and activists who are promoting those “solutions” are content to present a monolithic, negative image of the rest of farming. Very few consumers have any perspective to independently assess what they are being told. And so, it is probably not surprising that so few people are electing to enter the practical agricultural sciences.

There is a lot of important work left to do if we are going to keep the world fed and the environment intact. Who will continue this work?

No-till planting image from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Steve Savage is a scientist (PhD Plant Pathology) with more than thirty years of diverse experience with crops and agricultural technologies.
He has worked on everything from biological controls to chemicals to genetics to biotechnology. He has worked for a university (Colorado State), a large company (Du Pont), a small company (Mycogen) and for the last 13 years as an independent consultant.
He writes about farming both to address widespread myths and to confront the real challenges of sustainably feeding a world population headed to 9 billion in an age of climate change. Steve writes from sunny San Diego county in California in an office with a view of his home vineyard and garden.
Links to his writing can be found at appliedmythology.blogspot.com