June 30, 2022
Steven Chu calls for a fourth agricultural revolution

Prof. Steven Chu

The first three agricultural revolutions allowed the human population to grow to billions, but they also had “unexpected consequences”, in the words of Nobel laureate Steven Chu.

The first agricultural revolution included the domestication of wheat, rice, cattle and chickens, yeast for bread, and the first irrigation. Another reason for population growth was through a suite of policy changes including crop rotation, plow improvements, the division of the commons into private property parcels. The third was inspired by the development of artificial fertilizers (mostly from natural gas), and by Norman Borlaug by cultivating more productive strains of wheat at the time to feed an exploding human population.

“These many industrial and agricultural revolutions had some unintended consequences,” Chu said at the Caltech Energy 10 conference this month, “and they have changed our climate, including greenhouse gas emissions, CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases. ”

Now humanity finds itself on a collision course with a new set of limitations: the agricultural sector has consumed half of Earth’s arable land, destabilizing the climate whose relative stability made agriculture possible.

Chu said agriculture has only recently begun to gain attention in the global climate conversation. It produces more greenhouse gases than it produces energy, and it offers some great opportunities—the “lowest hanging fruit”—for mitigation.

“There must be more efficient ways of doing this,” he said of feeding humanity, “and we really need a fourth agricultural revolution:

• “We need better crop yields with less fossil-based fertilizers and pesticides.”

• “There is an opportunity to restore the carbon in the soil that we have been eliminating since the beginning of agriculture.”

• Requires plants that are more resistant to heat and drought.

• Beef and milk substitutes are needed. “If beef and dairy cattle were one country,” Chu said, “they would have about five gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year more emissions than any other country except China, and, in fact, they are on par with the US ( emissions) at this time.”

• And if fallow fields are used to grow biomass for carbon capture, Chu said, those plants must be adapted for growth through genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering may prove to be the most problematic feature of Chu’s Fourth Revolution, he acknowledges, at least politically.

“Unfortunately GMOs based on Roundup-ready crops have a very bad reputation,” he said, referencing genetically modified crops to protest Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, which had the unintended consequence, according to Harvard University, Roundup. -Ready to produce “superweeds”. It is very difficult to control.

GMOs could enjoy a better reputation if their fame rested on genetically fortified golden rice or eggplant and cotton that had been genetically modified with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to resist pests.

“So it’s unfortunate,” said Chu. “You can’t undo history, but I’ll go back to what Norman Borlaug said: We’re going to need GMOs to feed a population of 11 billion.”

Chu is a Stanford University physicist who won the 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics for using lasers to trap atoms, but he is also a professor of molecular and cellular physiology and a board member for Oatly, Which is a company producing alternative milk made from oats.

Genetic modification could increase the protein content of the plant’s milkweed, he said, promoting faster-growing salmon, nurturing the microbes in the corn’s roots that reduce the plant’s need for additional fertilizer.

“As I’m trying to point out, we’ve been genetically modifying plants and animals for more than 4,000 years,” he said. “Policy is really being measured by people’s ease with accepting the technology. You have to say we are concerned about unintended consequences. You have to roll out very carefully.”

“As we head out to sea, there is an opportunity to do some genetic modification here, but you have to be careful because you don’t want a fish genetically modified to be released into the wild unless you are absolutely sure- And that could take decades—so there are no unintended consequences.”

Story Source: Forbes. Original written by Jeff McMahon. “Steven Chu Calls For A Fourth Agricultural Revolution”.
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