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Why We Need to Play God with Our Food

July 20, 2013, 6:00 AM

Geoengineering – the idea that humanity could engineer the climate to help stop climate change or even reverse it, is also widely feared.  It’s playing God in a certain sense.  Yet we might need it. The best thing to do for climate change is to get our emissions of CO2, the amount that we pump out each year, down close to zero.  But we’re not on path for that right now.  The world emits more CO2 into the atmosphere each year – more than the year before.  So we have to have some sort of backup plan.

One of the most important things about farming involving food production is yield.  What does yield mean?  It means how much food you grow per acre.  Why is that important?  With farming and grazing together we’ve taken about a third of the land area of the planet and changed it.  And a lot of that was originally forest.  In the tropics today agriculture, mostly the grazing of cattle, accounts for 80 percent of the deforestation that’s happening.  So if you want to save the forests we need to grow more food on the same amount of land, especially because we have to grow about 70 percent more food by 2050 to feed the population.

So the number one thing to look at with agriculture is yield.  How much food do you grow per acre.  And organic food has a lot of virtues but organic farming has lower yields.  So it’s not necessarily the greenest thing to do. 

Now there could be some future version of organic where we have perhaps gotten rid of pesticides but we’ve engineered those plants biologically to grow more food per acre.  So we can get away with fewer toxins but higher yield.  That would be sort of a GMO organic crossbreed.  I’m not sure people are ready for that yet but it might be a very good idea.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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