Environmental Science Problems

Agriculture plays a critical role in food security, political stability, and world peace and yet it leaves a big environmental footprint. Agriculture accounts for 33 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and as much as 75 percent of nitric oxide emissions. It's also responsible for 70 percent of world water use, 50 percent of the topsoil loss, and drives 80 percent of the planet’s deforestation.

The challenge for all of us — as scientists, policy makers, farmers and consumers — is to mitigate these environmental insults while feeding 9+ billion people.

Fortunately, scientific innovations—including agricultural biotechnology—are helping us meet these challenges. I’d like to share five inspirational stories of people who are relying on science to address common, but daunting, farming issues.

The Nitrogen Problem

Giles Oldroyd, a professor at the John Innes Centre in the UK, is leading a team that aspires to engineer cereal crops, like maize, to produce their own nitrogen fertilizer by associating with soil microbes. This addresses three challenges: lack of access to synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in areas of the developing world, like Sub-Saharan Africa, where yields are only 15-20 percent of those in similar climatic regions; eliminating the nitrogen run-off from farms and the associated release of nitric oxide; and reducing carbon emissions generated by the production of nitrogen fertilizers. If Giles and his team are successful, farmers around the world will have access to cleaner, greener, cereal crops. Learn more about Giles’ mission to address the nitrogen problem here.

The Topsoil Problem

Bram Govaerts, a native of Belgium, works at the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) in Mexico. Bram champions the adoption of conservation agriculture practices that reduce topsoil loss and offer myriad other benefits, such as reduced tillage, leaving surface resides on the land, and diversifying cropping systems. To help small-scale farmers across the developing world achieve widespread adoption of these practices, Bram uses cell phones, social media, and other communications and educational approaches, both online and offline. These strategies inspire change at both the farmer and policy levels. Bram is committed to helping farmers access the innovations to rise above subsistence farming. As he noted upon receiving the prestigious Borlaug Field Award in 2014: “The best recognition of Dr. Norman Borlaug’s legacy is to be conscious and shout out loud that farming is the future. It is our moral duty as researchers to bring pride back to the fields by harnessing the existing innovations of farmers and other value chain actors and fostering capacity and application of science and technology.” See Bram in action here.

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