Can agricultural technology help deliver a sustainable food system?

By Patrick Keys


The sustainability of the global food system is critical to the future of humanity. In this post, I argue that:

  • There is a history of antagonism (or even malevolence) between the communities that advocate expansion of agricultural technology and those advocating for sustainable food systems,
  • This antagonism is misplaced, given that agricultural technology can help deliver a sustainable food system,
  • The sustainability community ought to incorporate the huge leaps that agricultural technology is set to make in the coming decades, and
  • Focusing on actual definitions & methods is thus necessary to find entry points (rather than popular rhetoric, aka ‘real food’)

I’m going to focus on the sustainability community, and what it ought to be doing more in this article. This is because firstly, the global forces shaping agricultural technology are much larger scale, much better funded, and much more path-dependent than the sustainability community. Thus, if the sustainability community wants to steer the direction (or at least help navigate) where global agricultural production goes, it must engage the large-scale, dominant trends in global food production.

By 2050, the median population projection is for an additional 2 billion persons on the planet, with dietary demands that will require an expansion of agriculture by 50-70% above current levels (Rockström et al., 2014). The communities that are arguing for a sustainable food system must engage more comprehensively with the agricultural technology community.

As a side effect of food being in the spotlight, it also means that a lot of populist ideas about food, including much vaunted food pundits such as Michael Pollan et al., are given a larger podium from which to share their ideas. The issues of food sustainability have created, among others, the EAT Foundation (launched in March 2016) which has the following ambition:

to reform the global food system, enabling us to feed a growing global population with healthy food from a healthy planet. The three [sponsoring] organisations will use their unique range of experience in health, science, policy and sustainability, to convene experts and decision makers who together can transform the way we eat.

This sort of agenda-setting by large, international organizations, with lots of money and influence is, I think, a good thing (I’m a globalist, and ultimately want both people and planet to be in good shape for future generations). Also, my personal entry point with this topic, like so many others, is ultimately an ethical one. I feel strongly that humanity ought to produce food in a way that reduces human suffering from hunger while maintaining a functioning biosphere. To underline my perspective, I’ve quoted a recent special section from the Economist magazine (Technology Quarterly, June 11, 2016):

…while it is fine for the well-fed to be prissy about not eating food containing genetically modified ingredients, their fears have cast a shadow over the development of transgenic crops that might help those whose bellies are not so full. That is unconscionable.

– “Towards 2050: Vorsprung durch Technik”
The Economist, 2016

Though this only mentions GM crops, it is decidedly a shot across the bow aimed primarily at rich, ‘green’, liberal, Westerners. The skepticism (or outright hostility) towards advancements in agricultural technology has become almost dogmatic in the sustainability community. This is a mistake.

As the sustainable food community gains momentum, it must engage with the ideas and advancements produced by the agricultural technology sector to meet the challenges of increasing food production, reducing human suffering, and maintaining a functioning biosphere.


When we say ’Science is doing X’, we should pause and ask about the assumptions those Scientists are making, and the worldview they have. What is their understanding or vision of what constitutes a sustainable food supply? Is it…

  • Organic-only?
  • Transgenic crops included vs. excluded?
  • Can precision gene-editing (different from transgenic) be part of the solution?
  • Processed vs. Unprocessed?
  • ‘Natural’ vs. ‘Unnatural’?

The fact that the sustainability community tends to label as unsustainable anything that is transgenic, gene-edited, or corporate-affiliated as ‘unsustainable’, is wrong. Likewise, its similarly wrong for agricultural technologists to discount the organic movement, or to denigrate efforts to balance food production with healthy ecosystems.

Accusations abound of nefarious cooperation between industry and proponents on both sides  of the discussion. There was recently a furore over Ken Folta’s research purported funding sources, which is not to mention the widespread efforts to peer deep into scientists log books, emails, and other communications that have received any funding from the private sector. Conversely, there has been recent discussion that links certain popular food pundits (namely Michael Pollan and Tom Philpott) to the Organic Industry. Though it is undeniably important to know the truth about these sorts of activities, too often the individuals and organizations are punished before any confirmation of the evidence. Likewise, both the targeting of scientists performing research on biotechnology and the targeting of organic information cartels distracts from the bigger issue, which is the failure to integrate agricultural technology into what it means to be sustainable.


A bright spot in the gap between biotechnological researchers is the (unlikely?) partnership between Dr. Pamela Ronald (plant geneticist) and Raoul Adamchak (organic farmer). They have written a great book (Tomorrow’s Table) about how there can be overlap and indeed cooperation between the world of plant genetic modification and organic farming, to truly achieve environmentally sustainable goals. Here’s an article written by David Doody, published in the Ensia magazine on this duo.


So, what would the future of food look like in a world in which genetic engineering and organic farming are both seen as legitimate tools for achieving sustainable agriculture?

“I think we’d have an all-of-the-above strategy,” Ronald says. “You would develop [crop] varieties based on sustainable agriculture criteria rather than marketing criteria or an agenda pushed by somebody who has a conflict of interest.”

– Ensia, 2013



The Economist magazine recently had a special section on The Future of Agriculture, published in their section Technology Quarterly. The entire special section is a must read, especially if you’re not familiar with the cutting edge in agricultural technology. Get ready, it sounds a little like science fiction… but its more likely to be science near-future. Here’s a particularly eye-opening quote:

At the University of Sydney, the Australian Centre for Field Robotics has developed RIPPA (Robot for Intelligent Perception and Precision Application), a four-wheeled, solar-powered device that identifies weeds in fields of vegetables and zaps them individually. At the moment it does this with precise, and precisely aimed, doses of herbicide. But it, or something similar, could instead use a beam of microwaves, or even a laser. That would allow the crops concerned to be recognised as “organic” by customers who disapprove of chemical treatments.

– The Economist, 2016


To some, this sort of technology may be unpalatable, or even sound like an abomination. Personally, I’d say get over your romanticism. In my opinion, despite the bright photos that dot the brochures of various nonprofits about improving the lives of smallholder famers (which is of course laudable), those are back-breaking existences. Anyone who has watched (let alone planted) a paddy of rice can attest to this. But that is all beside the point, because these technologies are happening no matter what. The innovations that are being implemented now, and those that are in the pipeline, are set to not just revolutionize farming, but provide continual revolution that could actually meet the food production challenge by 2050.

Thus, I want to highlight a handful of the technologies that are important to be aware of, particularly for the sustainability community.

Gene editing and GMO technology

With a name like Genetically Engineered or Genetically Edited, its no surprise that these varieties of crops have been met with skepticism, if not revulsion. However, its all based on a presumed understanding of what GM means, rather than an actual understanding (yes, I’m calling some of you skeptics out). The fact is that nearly all the foods humanity eats (especially cereal grains) have had their genomes modified by people. The four primary means of genome modification humanity employs are:

  • conventional cross-breeding or trait selection (i.e. harvesting desired varieties, and replanting or crossing with existing varieties)
  • mutagenesis (i.e. exposing seeds to phenomena that will mutate the DNA, such as gamma radiation or chemical solutions)
  • genetic modification (i.e. the use of targeted techniques to insert or remove specific gene sequences, often from other species)
  • genetic editing (i.e. the editing of specific nucleotides in a plant genome, resembling mutations that happen as a side effect of reproduction, without human intervention)

I’m willing to bet you 1 Dairy Queen Blizzard (the standard unit of gambling in my household) that if you asked the average person which of these processes were allowed in organic production, they would likely say only the first. That would be incorrect, since the first two options are allowed (and potentially the fourth…).

The different methods above can all be used to identify specific traits that are more or less desirable, with varying levels of efficiency, cost, and precision. The first method is the most time-consuming, since it requires growing varieties to maturity to cross desirable varieties. The second method is imprecise since its unclear which genes were edited in the mutation process (if such change isn’t visible, i.e. revealed phenotypically). The third method has been the most precise (until the entrance of the fourth method), and has allowed for the development of varieties that could not evolve in nature, such as herbicide tolerant varieties of food crops (e.g. Roundup Ready corn). The fourth method is new, and is (as far as I know) not actively used. Though it holds promise for being more precise than the transfer of entire genes among different plants, since it can target specific nucleotides.

In the context of the poorest farmers, where crop yields can be well-below international averages, the biggest impact that these technologies can make is in terms of resistance to regional pests or climate variabilities (e.g. drought or flood tolerance), increased yields, and improved nutritional content. Indeed, this is what presaged the first green revolution, led by Norman Borlaug. He (and I’m sure an army of field scientists and farmers) helped develop a range of wheat varieties that were better able to produce grain in adverse circumstances (e.g. increased stem sturdiness in dwarf wheat). The classic GMO example of this is Golden Rice, which seeks to include Vitamin A in rice, a staple food for half the world’s population. Needless to say, Golden Rice has been stymied for more than a decade due to widespread hostility to its deployment – hostility that has come from many prominent Western groups. Thus, slow progress has been made in the deployment of GMO crops – a travesty for the world’s poorest and hungriest people –  not least because of the perception that they are dangerous or harmful to human health (which is not supported by the broad consensus of scientific research – which is to say GMOs are safe). The problems of GMO crops are also often linked to the agribusinesses that sell them, with the question of safety often being conflated with the (perceived) ethical misconduct of these companies. However, there are those who would like to make GMO crops open-source, which could hasten their delivery to the poorest people, and help alleviate malnutrition.

Robots, Automation, and the Reduction of Human Labor

In many Western farms, especially in the US, there is already automated farm technology. This automation (along with many other factors) has helped achieve the massive increase in food production in the USA, while the same region has experienced an order of magnitude reduction in labor. Further automation will potentially make farming mostly a desk-job, where the day’s work is monitoring the fleet of seeders, weeders, drone monitors, and harvesters.

These sorts of technologies, however, are unlikely to make much of an impact on the poorest farms, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, given all of the impediments, not least of which is electricity to power this type of farming infrastructure. However, as happened with cell phones in many rural parts of the planet, its posible that some lower-power automation might leapfrog infrastructure barriers. Notably, the use of lightweight drones (such as quad-copters) could be a boon for poorer farmers, as they could help monitor everything from environmental issues (e.g. temperature, humidity, wind, etc.), to security of equipment on a field (as a means to identify equipment thieves), to targeted distribution of herbicides or fertilizers. These sorts of low-/no-power technologies are also more readily plugged into the wireless data networks that already connect much of the world.



This blog post has merely scratched the surface on this issue, but hopefully it will lead folks who are interested to probe a bit more deeply into how agricultural technology can be integrated with the sustainability agenda. As a concluding idea, the agricultural technology and sustainable food communities could find common ground if they think about focusing on definitions and perhaps even shared goals. Having a common glossary could be a starting point for a productive dialogue.

Of particular use would be to have clear ideas of how rapidly advancing agricultural technology might be nested within a broader global, sustainable food system. A potential vehicle for this dialogue could be an imaginative scenario building exercise, that aims to integrate both communities’ ideas and goals. This would provide the sustainable food folks, in particular, with a sense of where and how including agricultural technology into their thinking might provide novel pathways forward for meeting the food production challenge while maintaining a thriving biosphere.



Rockström, J., Falkenmark, M., Folke, C., Lannerstad, M., Barron, J., Enfors, E., Gordon, L., Heinke, J., Hoff, H. and Pahl-Wostl, C., 2014. Water resilience for human prosperity. Cambridge University Press.


[1]  If you’re interested in cutting edge academic research on GMO crops, checkout the GENERA database which is a “searchable database of peer-reviewed research on the relative risks of genetically engineered crops.”


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