Food is the body’s source of energy and nutrients, without which the human body would cease to function. Most Americans are reminded of this fact three times a day, thanks to the extensively evolved agricultural system that has developed since our transition from hunter-gatherer ways 10,000 years ago. However, the delicate state of the environment leaves the future of food production uncertain, particularly for developing nations.
On October 5, Robert Howart and Rebecca Nelson spoke at the Sustainable Earth, Energy and Environmental Systems speaker series about their efforts to improve the agricultural system from both an environmental and socioeconomic perspective.
In unaltered ecosystems, the limiting factor in plant growth is most commonly nitrogen. However, around a hundred years ago, a nitrogen fixation process developed the solution to nitrogen limitation on crop growth: nitrogen enriched fertilizer. Robert Howart, ecology and evolutionary biology, said that “today, [nitrogen fertilizer] literally feeds the world. 80 percent of the nitrogen used to support crop growth globally comes from fertilizer … Current agriculture would be unrec ognizable without it. And it’s a good fit; we don’t have anywhere near as much starvation in the world as we would have otherwise. It is what allows the high agricultural productivity that we enjoy today.”
But high productivity comes at a cost. Howart’s research focuses on how nitrogen runoff contributes to nutrient loading in aquatic ecosystems. Rivers, streams and watersheds drain into coastal environments, contributing to significantly higher nitrogen flux in agricultural regions. As nitrogen levels get substantially higher in these coastal marine areas, the oceans become anoxic, or oxygen-deficient. These areas may ultimately turn into dead zones unfit for habitation by marine species.
To solve an apparent dilemma between food production and ecosystem salvation, scientists began exploring the possibility of limiting nitrogen runoff without decreasing fertilizer use. These methods include not only changes in farming techniques and government management, but also changes that any individual can make.
“If you fertilize in the spring instead of the fall, you reduce the nitrogen loss by about 30 to 40 percent,” Howart explained. “Also, if you plant green cover crops on the field that grow during the winter, they hold on to the nitrogen into the spring, which reduces nitrogen loss by three-fold.” Cover crops grow when cash crops are not in season, protecting the soil from erosion due to weather exposure.
Howart touched on options for consumers, as well as farmers. “You can eat less meat, reducing the demand for beef, which has become largely fed by nitrogen-intensive corn.”
While Howart spoke on the impact of developed agriculture on the environment, Rebecca Nelson, plant pathology, addressed the impact of the environment on agriculture. Developing nations, especially those in Africa, face the challenges of staple crop diseases without the support of immediate, extensive research on such diseases and the resources to fight them.
Most students are familiar with the evolution of disease resistance: a person experiences a virus, medicates him or herself and after a certain period of time, the only viruses left are those that are resistant to the medication, which then procreate to augment the population of the disease-resistant virus.
However, this evolution works both ways, as hosts are also able to develop resistance against diseases. At the Nelson lab in the department of plant pathology, Nelson and colleagues endeavor to determine the genetic basis for maize’s ability to resist certain diseases. By mapping the genes of these disease-resistant strands of maize, Nelson said he hopes to identify the genes responsible for disease resistance in agricultural plants.
Nelson’s project encompasses the scientific aspect of improving agriculture through gene mapping in the lab while implementing their findings in farms across New York and in Kenya. Nelson and her colleagues have received a substantial amount of funding from sources that include the U.S. government and other international corporations. With growing rates of poverty and hunger in developing nations, tension and violence has increased substantially, increasing the vulnerability of peaceful transactions within and between nations.
“A lot of attention goes to people who are in developed nations and, of course, those people need help,” Nelson said. “But most of the hungry are people living in developing countries and about half are farmers who are living in areas that are hard to farm.” Nelson hopes to lessen hunger rates by instructing farmers in developing nations on new ways to fight diseases that may decimate their crops.
Like the proverbial man who is taught to fish and can feed himself for a lifetime, Nelson said, the future of food in developing nations is not only reliant on research in crop varieties and agricultural processes, but also on education.