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?

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