Charles Godfray: A nation that can­not feed itself has no legit­i­ma­cy and will fail. Ever since humans orga­nized them­selves in soci­eties and city-states and nations, it’s been at the fore­front of rulers’, politi­cians’, minds, how to feed a nation.

Now, I’m a pop­u­la­tion biol­o­gist, and the founder of my field and inci­den­tal­ly one of the founders of eco­nom­ics was Robert Malthus, who 200 years ago wrote that human pop­u­la­tion will inex­orably increase beyond the capac­i­ty to feed itself. Human pop­u­la­tion increas­es geo­met­ri­cal­ly, food sup­ply increas­es arith­meti­cal­ly.

Now, the most extra­or­di­nary thing that’s hap­pened in my adult intel­lec­tu­al lifes­pan is a demo­graph­ic tran­si­tion. The fact that human pop­u­la­tion fer­til­i­ty will reduce itself nat­u­ral­ly in a non-coercive way if we get things right. Intellectually, we can now argue against Malthus, which when I was a stu­dent we could­n’t.

Demographic tran­si­tion, you have to bring peo­ple out of pover­ty. You have to pro­vide access to repro­duc­tive health­care, and edu­ca­tion for kids—especially for girls. Get these right, get these sen­si­ble devel­op­ments right, and pop­u­la­tion growth rates go down.

And glob­al pop­u­la­tions will prob­a­bly plateau at around 11 billion—which is still a huge chal­lenge to feed but to me it’s game on. But we have to do things across the whole food sys­tem. Across waste, across con­sump­tion, across gov­er­nance. And what I’m going to talk about, which is about pro­duc­ing more food.

Now, in the past when we need­ed to pro­duce more food, we found a new con­ti­nent. We cut down forests. We have nei­ther of those options today. There are no new con­ti­nents. And as Nick Stern said, prob­a­bly the most effi­cient way to get car­bon diox­ide into the atmos­phere is to cut down trop­i­cal rain­forests. So we have to pro­duce more food from the same agri­cul­tur­al foot­print. And I call that sus­tain­able inten­si­fi­ca­tion.” Many oth­er peo­ple call that sus­tain­able inten­si­fi­ca­tion. And this has been the focus of a lot of reports recent­ly. I want to put a lit­tle flesh on the notion of sus­tain­able inten­si­fi­ca­tion; what one can do to pro­duce more from the same foot­print with less effects on the envi­ron­ment.

Look at these two wheat fields 300 years apart. We have bred wheat to be much short­er and more pro­duc­tive. There are a myr­i­ad of things we can do with mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy and plant breed­ing not only to increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty but to increase resilience.

And it’s not just in the rich world. This is orange-fleshed sweet pota­to pro­duced by con­ven­tion­al breed­ing, which is doing won­der­ful things address­ing vit­a­min A and oth­er nutri­ent defi­cien­cies in Africa. Much we can do, and it’s excit­ing we can work not only on the rice, wheat, and maize that’re tra­di­tion­al crops, but in the so-called orphan crops.

One can use tech­nol­o­gy, pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture. There is much we can do tak­ing infor­ma­tion from satel­lites to get the resources, the agro­chem­i­cals, the nutri­ents, exact­ly where you need them. So again, you’re increas­ing yields, with less input.

A hand near the base of a plant, applying a very small amount of fertilizer from a bottlecap

And it’s not just in the rich world, this is micro­dos­ing. Giving farm­ers in devel­op­ing coun­tries the knowl­edge to put exact­ly the right amount of fertilizer—that’s a Coke bot­tle top, just at the base of a maize plant—and pro­vid­ing the financ­ing so that the farmer can actu­al­ly go out and buy the fer­til­iz­er.

Massive amounts we can do with data. This is anoth­er exam­ple from East Africa. Where I work in East Africa I get a bet­ter sig­nal than where I live South of Oxford on my mobile phone. Huge amount of infor­ma­tion com­ing through apps. Farmers now have access to the type of finance we take for grant­ed in the West.

Now peo­ple wor­ry about sus­tain­able intensification—it’s the way of bring­ing in GM or bad ani­mal wel­fare through the back door. Sustainable inten­si­fi­ca­tion is a goal, it’s not a tra­jec­to­ry. We as a soci­ety can deter­mine what we can use. For me, I’m com­plete­ly hap­py with GM if done respon­si­bly. I wor­ry about ani­mal wel­fare.

There’s lots of chal­lenges ahead, espe­cial­ly around cli­mate change. But I gen­uine­ly say to my stu­dents that I am more opti­mistic about the future and feed­ing the world, at my age, than I was at their age, again because of the demo­graph­ic tran­si­tion. It real­ly is game on, there’s a lot we can do.

And I leave you with— I’ve talked about excit­ing ideas look­ing ahead. But what are the next ideas? Is it arti­fi­cial meat? Is it alter­na­tive pro­teins? Is it some of the ideas about grow­ing crops in urban agri­cul­ture, these mega­lopolis­es? It’s a real­ly excit­ing time. What are the new ideas that we’ll see in the next ten years, twen­ty years?


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.