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A Spanish proverb reminds us that "civilization and anarchy are just seven meals apart". As the 2022 OECD Meeting of Agriculture Ministers opens in Paris, participating Ministers should remember they have the most important portfolio of all the ministers in their respective countries. I understand that it has not always seemed so, but recent events have shown just how important their job is.
If I can address you directly, Dear Ministers of Agriculture, you are in the civilization-making business. You come together now in this truly unique moment in which we are experiencing a war in Europe, the aftershocks of COVID-19, record inflation and a climate crisis that will just get worse. It can seem impossible to know where to focus; the harsh reality is that we cannot focus but instead must deal with multiple crises at once.
We have never had to grow food under these conditions...[it is] simply impossible under our current model of production.
But of all the things that might worry you—and anyone else in the world of agriculture—it is surely climate change that stands out as the existential threat.
But we are not treating it as the threat it is. The climate crisis is scary in the same way that Stage 1 pancreatic cancer is scary, but Stage 4 is devastating; from the perspective of agriculture, we are rapidly heading for Stage 4. We have never had to grow food under these conditions. The expected future conditions, with their repeated shocks of drought, floods and excessive heat, are simply impossible under our current model of food production.
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
– Abraham Lincoln, 2nd address to Congress, 1 Dec, 1862
These words of Abraham Lincoln have been in my mind since I first came to a US Land Grant University (Penn State). The Land Grants are closely associated with Lincoln as he signed into law the Morrill Act of 1862 that created them. I confess I knew nothing of the Land Grants when I first came to the United States as Irish immigrant to work at Harvard's famous Museum of Comparative Zoology. I was an evolutionary biologist and had come from Copenhagen University, and before that Oulu University, Oxford and Glasgow. I mention this list of places as the Land Grants stand out because they were designed to be different; to integrate research in the agricultural sciences, extension (helping farmers via practical knowledge) and education. They have successfully trained scientists and leaders who have dealt with major threats like the Dust Bowl and the global decline in food production that necessitated the Green Revolution.
Because we live in an age of apps, AI and smart clouds...the marginal cost to scaling is essentially zero.
Motivated by the Land Grants and Lincoln's call that we “disenthrall ourselves”, I founded an artificial intelligence (AI) software platform called PlantVillage that uses smartphones, AI computer vision and cloud technology to integrate multiple satellite streams from NASA, the European Space Agency and elsewhere. This technology is used by the UN FAO in over 60 countries and 30 languages, and was critical to saving food for 40 million people by stopping the locust crisis of 2020-2021. It currently helps partners like Shamba Shape Up in East Africa and Agribusiness TV in West Africa reach 14 million farmers per week in nine countries, with climate change advice from the USAID-supported Climate Hazard Center and FEWSNET (Famine Early Warning System); by the end of November, it will be 17.5 million.
But this could easily—and cheaply—be 300 million farmers. Such potential is possible because we live in an age of apps, AI and smart clouds, and the marginal cost to scaling is essentially zero. We can reach 8 million farmers in Kenya for the price of two tickets to the recently concluded World Food Prize and one night in a hotel.
To get the most from this, we at PlantVillage have paired this technology with a global community of youth called the Dream Team. These are young people with degrees in agricultural sciences who help farmers adapt to climate change by bringing AI-powered supercomputers to them, directly connecting the global community of experts to the problem.
This combination of mobile teams of youth, farmers and AI is already critical to helping farmers adapt today. But it will be essential as we try to figure out what crops will grow where under climate change. We need to conduct massive experiments at scale. I have the honor of directing the USAID Current and Emerging Threats to Crops Innovation Lab, which is conducting research for development with CGIAR, Land Grants, universities and private businesses in Feed the Future countries. Our Lab was launched during COP26 by Administrator Samantha Power and Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, underscoring the impactf and speed with which climate change has hit smallholder farmers across the world as the singular threat they face. As the US Special Envoy on Global Food Security, Dr Cary Fowler recently pointed out during his address at the World Food Prize, “I cannot personally shake the belief that on the…list of the top ten most important challenges that we face in regards to food security, that climate is one through five”.
We must leverage a platform like PlantVillage, the network of experts and the Dream Team to add new tools and continue research to determine which crops will grow well in this new world. An example from our Threat Innovation Lab is work with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the John Innes Center. We provide advanced sequencing machines that attach to a common laptop, democratising the access to technology that previously only existed in well-resourced labs in the West. The future will be new and better tools, and we will need them as we break out long dormant seeds from the Svalbard Seed vault (Crop Trust) to test what crops will work best and where.
The last 10,000 years of the quiet past in which we developed and improved agriculture will not survive the stormy present and the uncertain future.
But technology and greater genetic diversity will not be enough. We also need material science approaches to engineer farms to create ideal growing conditions. This could range from using carbonaceous material like biochar to create low-cost, nanotech micro-irrigation systems that direct water to stressed plants, to widescale integration of agroforestry to create enormous shade systems that prevent heat shock in plants.
To do all this, it is clear that we must disenthrall ourselves. The last 10,000 years of the quiet past in which we developed and improved agriculture will not survive the stormy present and the uncertain future. We must disenthrall ourselves and undertake the largest experiment in human history: growing food to feed 10 billion people in a 2.0° C world. And it could be 3.2° C according to the IPCC Working Group III’s Sixth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. As the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2022-2031 emphasises, the challenges are significant.
There are grounds for optimism, though. Contained within the name of your ministry is the solution: culture! Through the tech- and youth-enabled sharing of knowledge—both to and from farms—and the potential to do this across hundreds of millions of fields, we can understand what works, what doesn't, and what we must do to grow enough food: enough for those vital meals that keep us closer to civilization and further from anarchy.