Crop Crisis | The greatest threat to our existence from climate change and disease is crop failure

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Our inability to adequately feed our global population due to climate change or a new type of quick spreading plant disease, may be the greatest existential threat the world of 9 billion people will ever face. A recent television coverage by the BBC on food security, reported that we will need to grow more food for our growing population in the next 30 years than in the history of our recorded civilization. And since by 2050, it is estimated that our planetary population will reach 10 billion, we must find ways to effectively feed our population while ensuring the production and supply systems do not destroy our environment along the way. It is estimated that our food systems contribute a mind-bending 17.9 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, which amounts to 34 % of global GreenHouse Gas emissions (Crippa et al. 2021). In comparison, our entire transportation system (which includes cars, freight, aviation, shipping) accounts for 8 billion tonnes of Carbon Dioxide (Our World In Data, 2020). It is painfully evident that our entire agriculture system needs an overhaul if we are to keep our commitments to the Paris Agreement and ensure food security at the same time.

Over a third of our planet’s livable lands are dedicated to growing food, and our farmers are right in the line of fire from the effects of climate change. They are essentially the buffer zone to climate change and we don’t have to look far to ask our farmers the consequential influence that droughts, excessive rain or high temperatures have on the national and global agriculture industry. They are also ill-equipped to address this exponentially growing problem alone. Thus, the onus is on us scientists, consumers, policy makers and technology sectors to work in tandem to provide unprecedented support to farmers.

One of the key issues our country and our planet face is the overuse of homogeneous crops to help feed 9 billion people. According to the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity press release, even though 30,000 plant species are edible, an overwhelming 60 percent of our entire global population’s calorie intake comes from just three crops; rice, maize and wheat, and in Bangladesh the numbers are even higher. Our very mindset has to change if we wish to ensure national and global food security through the heterogenization of our crop consumption. If we learned anything from the current global pandemic is that history tends to repeat itself and insurmountable food shortages, through the demise of any one major crop, are no different.

To make matters worse, our country and most countries of the world have become so spellbound with the perception and application of infinite efficiency, or the ubiquitous practice of just-in-time, that our global food from production to supply have barely developed any slack in the system. Most surprisingly the United States of America does have a working food grain reserve even though the foundations were laid during the time of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some may portend that in 1988 the SAARC Food Bank for the South Asian region, and its augmented variation in 2007 was the step in the right direction but its current state remains obscure. While Bangladesh does keep food reserves, the stark reality is that our existence is unpredictable and hangs in a delicate balance as we have been witnessing in this ongoing pandemic. In fact, the current pandemic will seem like child’s play compared to the gargantuan task that will befall not just our nation but the entire world. Think of the Irish potato famine replaced by a rice and wheat famine multiplied the world over.

The Great Irish Famine from 1845 to 1852, more than a million people died due to starvation. In addition, two million refugees had to leave Ireland, caused by overdependence on one crop – potatoes. The entire potato industry was destroyed by a fungus-like microorganism that can complete its entire life-cycle in about five to six days in ideal climatic conditions. Spores can be carried by the wind and rain can carry the fungus deep into the soil for further infestation. This infestation can quickly rot stems and the potato itself within a few days.

Moving on to a current growing food problem, another global staple and thus our overdependence, are bananas. Although there are varieties available, global consumption depends on a single variety called the Cavendish banana. Cavendish is a monoculture which results in this banana species being extremely vulnerable to climate and disease. Much to the shock of farmers and scientists across Latin America, the Panama Disease is causing the popular Cavendish banana’s demise and will face eventual extinction. Its effects have had far reaching consequences from Latin America to the African continent, Asia and Australia.

In a chain of chance events coupled with decades long research by scientists through genetic modification and gene editing, we have been lucky enough to have had the time and means to address farming challenges brought on by increased soil salinity, reduced rainfall and various diseases. The question is how much longer will our food systems hold on to its delicate balance. If any pest or disease without prior notice, analogous to our ongoing COVID-19 crisis, ravages through any major food crop such as our three staples of rice, wheat, maize, then our entire civilization will come to a grinding halt within months. The reality is that it won’t be us just trying to stay indoors and avoiding social gatherings, but rather, millions dying of starvation.

So, what is the solution to stall a possible global food security crisis? Bangladesh is already at the forefront of development and utilization of pest resistant, drought resistant rice varieties along with government reserves. However, there is always a risk of overt complacency. As a result, it is critical to begin the process of introducing more variety in our food habits, moving away from the over dependence on the two basic crops that power our population. One of the ancient grains from South America – the humble quinoa was a basic staple used in their region dating back thousands of years. The quinoa is rich in B-vitamins, an excellent source of dietary fiber, protein among other essential minerals. What is particularly important to note is that this plant is a hardy species and can thrive in saline or nutrient poor soils and still yield a harvest. The recent welcome news is that Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University has spent the last five years doing research on growing quinoa in Bangladesh and has helped to establish for the first time, four farming areas where the harvest yield was just as expected.

Going back a few years, in what I would call the “light warning bells” are the prices and supply challenges of the 2008 global financial crisis. The prices of our three-basic crop dependence doubled in a year, prompting emergency use of rice reserves and government interventions to buffer an out of control global price increase. It was then that it was recommended for the population to start consuming more potatoes as the primary method of nutrition as opposed to sole dependence on rice. However, as history states, it is not easy to change national consumption habits. Obviously, the general civil population continued to consume the staple rice. In an anecdotal evidence, Nurul Islam, a former career diplomat, recalls a time in the 1960s when the then government encouraged the use of corn as a potential addition to our national consumption of rice and wheat. However, this was met with stiff revolt by the local population through processions with placards that stated “amra Bangali, amra bhutta khai na” “we are Bengalis and we don’t eat corn.”

Habit changing challenges aside, it is critical and eminent for us to foretell and stall a possible future food security crisis through a digital revolution. This will enable us to change how we view, grow, supply and store our food from farm to our tables. One immediate way forward is using precision agriculture, where we use state-of-the art technology that determines water use through drip-irrigation to reduce water waste, machine learning weed picking and invasive species identification, which can reduce fertilizer use, and time-tested indigenous technology to help buffer us from a national and global food crisis. In addition, data gathering will enable high performance artificial intelligence and continued machine learning to help centralize our agricultural sector.

This is a win-win situation where the implementation of precision agriculture can increase efficiency in the way we do our work, help increase production and at the same time help us fight climate change. Furthermore, it is important to note that the idea of modernization is not to take away jobs but to retrain and retain our existing labor-intensive workforce and modernize them to be part of the team to fight climate change and ensure national food security. Business leaders can lead the way by bringing experts and investing in the field of precision agriculture in Bangladesh to begin the process of digitizing our agriculture industry. The results will strengthen and pave the way for Bangladesh to grow into becoming an inspiring, model middle-income country.

About the author: Shams-il Arefin Islam researches on environmental mitigation and adaptation, and has assisted in the implementation of various projects on waste to resource conversion, research on water-water treatment and various sustainability initiatives in the United States and Bangladesh.

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