“The next 30 years are the most important 30 years there will ever be in the history of agriculture. If we get to 2050 without cutting down our forests, without draining our rivers, lakes and aquifers, we’re good forever.”
Thus Jack Bobo, CEO of Futurity Food, argued in a pithy, provocative conversation we conducted at global agriculture confab Alltech ONE last year at the University of Kentucky’s arena in Lexington. (Find our interview here.)
Given the ten thousand year history of agriculture, this is a bold assertion, but one Bobo ably defends. Nourishing upwards of ten billion people, as most experts predict will exist by mid-century, presents an existential challenge. However, somewhere after 2050 the rate of growth will likely slow as global fertility drops below the replacement rate.
If we are able to nourish humanity in a sustainable manner over the next 30 years, we’ll be equipped to serve human needs for generations to come.
Our Future Is Organic— And Intensive At Scale
The key is how we navigate the next 30 years. While the rainforests of Brazil burn— often to clear land for food production— Bobo believes we already have enough land under agricultural production to satisfy human needs into the future. “40% of all land is already devoted to agriculture… that percentage is bigger than it needs to be.”
He advocates for the mutually-beneficial dynamic between conventional, high-scale intensive farming and organic farming practices. “The organic farmer is nothing like your grandparents’ farmer. They have better seeds, robots, GPS systems. A lot of that was developed for agriculture through big conventional farms.” Meanwhile, big conventional farmers today are using cover crops, low-till and no-till agriculture, “things that they adopted from the organic guys.”
Many on both sides approach the other with suspicion, even disdain. Bobo notes that it took him years to recognize the benefits of organic-conventional engagement. “Earlier in my career, I was focused on intensive agriculture as the solution.… I realized over time that there are great ideas coming out of organic agriculture that were making conventional agriculture better.”
Overcoming The Ten Thousand Year Challenge
To feed a world of ten billion, science will be essential. Unfortunately, the public dialogue about science and food is broken. As Bobo quips, “People have never cared more nor known less about how their food is produced.”
While honest disagreements occur based on rigorous, science-based arguments—science only progresses through argumentation— so-called “anti-science” currents in our public sphere, like the anti-vax movement, illustrate that science-alone won’t suffice. Bobo’s counter-intuitive insight, “if you lead with science, you lose with science,” suggests how we might progress.
“Science polarizes a conversation. Those who agree with you, agree with you more. Those who disagree, disagree with you more. What you really need is trust.”
Bobo advises bringing people together, face-to-face when possible, to pursue, if not agreement, at least understanding. Most people honestly seek solutions and often share compatible values. “If you can get your opponents to just think you’re a reasonable person, that’s what progress looks like.”
For years, Bobo has been engaging groups of people who don’t often interact, and when they do, often do so with distrust and suspicion. He advises against characterizing people as anti-science. Even if some people fail to understand how science works, few people today would characterize themselves as “anti-science.” Consider that many Creationism advocates attempt to find corroboration via the methods of science. “When values and science conflict, values always win. That doesn’t make you anti-science. That means you’re human.”
Proving Malthus Wrong— Again
Science and technology enabled humanity to avert a Malthusian catastrophe in the 19th Century. While food production—and thus population— increased dramatically, the resulting fossil fuel-dependent agricultural system also generated enormous harm to our environment.
Sustainable answers and experiments abound worldwide, as well as healthy disagreement. Sharing, challenging and validating ideas through science and practice—then scaling the winners. Social media can help. “We need to find a way of crowdsourcing this information so that things trusted by science have a way of disseminating themselves. Allowing those networks to reach people.”
This requires people willing to tackle tough questions with others across ideological lines. For instance, I’m a fan of agrologist and entrepreneur Robert Saik’s work at the intersections of science, technology and agriculture. In his book, Food 5.0: How We Feed The Future, he observes that, “To feed the world, we have to grow 10,000 years’ worth of food in the next thirty years.”
Like Bobo, Saik welcomes conversations with people from any perspective who are honestly seeking solutions. This often leads to uncomfortable– even vehement– disagreements, but that’s as it should be. Overcoming great challenges requires earnest, open engagement.
Over the next three decades, we’ll all face a 10,000-year jeopardy. We must confront it together. Expect to see Jack Bobo and Robert Saik on the front lines.
*This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on Sept. 5, 2019.