A futuristic view of farming

Within the next  few decades, the world will need to increase food production to support a growing population also striving for higher shares of animal protein in their nutrition. But food production always affects the environment: Nitrogen runoff from fertilizer has led to major pollution of waterways around the world, while deforestation to extend cropping areas and methane emissions from livestock increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, adding to the problem of climate change.  In order to increase food production, without further increasing nitrogen pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural systems will need to innovate.

In a recent study, IIASA researcher Wilfried Winiwarter explored the range of solutions for future agriculture, researching current literature for ideas and innovations, and examining their feasibility and potential.

“I call this a science fiction paper,” says Winiwarter. “It’s not about what exists and can be implemented immediately, but about the possible innovations that could conceivably be developed in the long-term.”

The study focused on innovations ranging from seemingly simple behavioral changes to radical technological fixes as discussed in more detail below. It reviewed existing scientific literature, mostly peer-reviewed, including design studies that quantified potential environmental effects of such innovations.Laboratory Plant

Precision Farming
Precision farming refers to technological solutions to improve yields and reduce waste in farming. On the one hand, precision farming can refer to the mechanization of agriculture that may not be environmentally benign, but on the other side, to optimized processes that reduce losses and impacts on the environment.

“Much is already happening,” says Winiwarter. For example, milk production in Europe now occurs mainly in large sheds, with indoor cows, not with free-ranging cows in idyllic meadows. While this industrial approach to agriculture makes food cheaper and more abundant, it also raises questions about animal welfare, and the massive scale of such operations can lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Precision farming can also be used to reduce the amounts of fertilizers or irrigation used, for example, using soil sensors or other high-tech infrastructure to detect exactly what is needed and apply no more than necessary.

Genetic Modification
Genetic modification (GM) of crops allows scientists to equip organisms with certain traits in a much more directed way than traditional breeding. It presents the potential to increase yields, provide drought or pest resistance, or introduce additional nutrients to foods that lack them. GM is already widely used in some crops (mostly to increase pesticide resistance and thus also pesticide application), but in Europe the subject is controversial and GM foods are viewed negatively

Winiwarter notes that the side effects of genetic modification are in general not well understood, and thus possible impacts are quite unpredictable.

Urban Gardening
The study looked into the growing popularity of urban gardening, the “green” trend to grow food in individual gardens inside cities. While urban gardening is generally considered environmentally benign due to small-scale, low transport needs and high personal motivation, Winiwarter notes that it doesn’t have the potential to produce staple food required to feed large populations. One key background study calculated that urban gardens had the potential to produce 10% or less of the food needed in a given city.

“You need space to produce food,” says Winiwarter.

Vertical Farming
As people move to cities and land becomes scarcer, one logical concept is to construct skyscraper “farms” with multiple levels of vegetables growing in hydroponic or aeroponic tanks – like giant, multistory greenhouses. “Compared to an open field, you could produce 200 times as much food on the same space,” explains Winiwarter. “In a city like Vienna, you could conceivably produce all the food for the city within city limits.”

Another advantage of vertical farming is that it could be organized to avoid  waste: whereas fertilizer in a field runs off or percolates through the soil into the water table, a vertical farm would employ nutrient solutions that could be contained and recycled.

However, the sunlight needed for photosynthesis could not so easily be multiplied. Instead, the process would require artificial light, which means enormous amounts of energy – even if efficient LED lighting could be employed.  “The question is where you would get that energy,” he says.


Cultured meat can now be grown in laboratories – but will it ever make sense on a large scale?

Cultured Meat
Another radical idea for food production is to take meat production off the farm, and instead culture animal cells in petri dishes to grow artificial meat in a laboratory in a nutrient solution. Indeed, the first hamburger from cultured meat was produced in 2013. But Winiwarter notes that meat from the laboratory may not be less resource-intensive than the real thing, since it would need energy, heat, light, and nutrients, which all would make the process extremely expensive, even under ideal conditions. He says, “Upscaling such a process may come with a number of negative surprises – from sanitary issues to pollution as a side-effect of tackling potential health threats. Little is known on the potential environmental effects in a life cycle.”

Dietary Changes
“In general, meat has a higher environmental footprint than a vegetarian diet,” says Winiwarter. “It takes more area to produce feedstock for an animal than it would to produce vegetarian food for humans.”

Europe in particular has a high level of meat consumption, Winiwarter explains, so cutting meat consumption in the region has a large potential. In much of the highly populated areas of Asia, people consume a mostly vegetarian diet. As these countries become richer, increased consumption of meat and milk production is observed when people tend to copy European lifestyle. If Europeans were able to cut down on meat consumption and treat themselves with a more healthy diet, positive environmental effects may even spread to world regions where European food patterns may serve as an example.

Agriculture, like a high-tech industry, will continue to develop dynamically in the future. Many paths of development can be imagined, and have been described in scientific or other literature. “There is no ‘silver bullet’ to resolve the environmental damage of agriculture”, Winiwarter says. Instead, future innovations will need to be carefully monitored and evaluated for potential environmental effects, in order to minimize damage of nitrogen pollution and maintain livelihood on earth.

Winiwarter W, Leip A, Tuomisto HL, Haastrup P. 2014. A European perspective of innovations towards mitigation of nitrogen-related greenhouse gases. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877343514000396

By Katherine Leitzell, IIASA Science Writer

Interview: Inequality is a lifelong story

Tarja Halonen was the 11th President of the Republic of Finland and Finland’s first female head of state from 2000 to 2012. She currently serves as the Co-Chair of the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, and the Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders. She is also a member of the high-level reflection group, the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group.

"Being poor does not mean that you are stupid; it sometimes demands a lot of intelligence to survive if you are poor. It is very important to take these issues seriously and our primary focus should be the empowerment of people." - Tarja Halonen

“Being poor does not mean that you are stupid; it sometimes demands a lot of intelligence to survive if you are poor. It is very important to take these issues seriously and our primary focus should be the empowerment of people.” – Tarja Halonen at the 2014 Alpbach Forum

IIASA: How have you been involved in the formation of the Sustainable Development Goals? Why is this process important?
TH: I have been involved in this process since the development of the Millennium Development Goals, and I consider that it is very important that we continue to work for these principles after the implementation of the millennium goals has ended in 2015.

In spite of all of their weaknesses the Millennium Development Goals were important goals, informing the knowledge and expectations that we have regarding sustainable development and a global climate agreement or commitment. To me, the post-2015 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, are perhaps the most important guarantee for the future of the world.

What is different about the approach of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group?
We have said many times—and many world leaders agreed at Rio+20—that it is time to stop working in silos. We need a multidimensional approach, where academia, politicians, business, civil society, and also NGOs are involved. This is where the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group is so important. I think that this group is an effort to address that need, and I hope that by bringing together the various areas of society we can address the great social injustices in the world. It is not only the business of scientists what happens in the world. It is not just someone else’s problem: everyone needs to be involved in the process.

How do you hope to see the issues of gender inequality reflected in the group?
In 2012 I was co-chair of a report entitled “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing” for the UN Secretary General, as part of my role on the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability. While compiling this report we noticed that there are a lot of resources that are overused and which cause problems. However, what is underused is human capital.

There are three categories we should focus on: the poor, youth and women. Of course all of these groups are very important to include. But for women, inequality is a lifelong story that you cannot get rid of.

It is very important to take these issues seriously and implement measures to change the status quo. I have already tried in many ways, and of course the Council of Women World Leaders has already done a lot of work which I am very thankful for. I am also very proud of Michelle Bachelet, current President of Chile, and the first Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women, who has led work on the empowerment of women at all levels. We need to make an effort to strengthen gender and women’s rights as part of the post-2015 goals. There are many similar attempts to raise this issue but I hope this group can make it a stronger voice.

-Interview by Philippa Brooks, IIASA Communications Manager, during the 2014 European Forum Alpbach

Alpbach, Austria

Alpbach, Austria

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Inside the Alpbach Forum

By Pavel Kabat, IIASA Director and Chief Executive Officer

This year is my second participating in the world-renowned Alpbach Forum. Last year I was invited to contribute to the Technology Forum and participated in breakout sessions with Karlheinz Töchterle, Austria’s Federal Minister for Science and Research. Although I was only in Alpbach for 3 days last year, there was a lot happening and it was clear that this was a unique forum, bringing together some of the world’s greatest thinkers across a wide range of fields.

Pavel Kabat at Alpbach Forum

During the breakout session on 26 August, I had the chance to discuss green growth with people from around the world. Image courtesy EFA

When I first met with the new European Forum Alpbach President, Franz Fischler, prior to the IIASA Conference last October, it became immediately clear that our attitudes towards the planet and life were very compatible. We very quickly found common ground, which has developed into a positive official collaboration between IIASA and EFA. Fundamentally the principles of European Forum Alpbach and IIASA are very similar. IIASA was established in 1972 to try and unite Europe after the Cold War, while the very first Alpbach Forum took place in 1945, immediately after WWII. This was an extremely courageous move, especially in Austria at that time. The forum was set up with the motive to build bridges by peaceful dialogue, and to get political leaders involved in that dialogue. IIASA had a similar role 20 years later, when Lyndon Johnson pursued JFK’s idea to create a bridge between East and West, using science policy to reach across boundaries.

Partners for a global transformation

EFA and IIASA have now embarked on a new partnership. Like any new relationship it has started with ambitious goals. Yet we have also clearly defined those ambitions. EFA and IIASA share a vision on the global transformation—one that leads to a more sustainable, equitable and livable planet. We agree that there is not only a need for new partnerships, but also that that this transformation requires vision and leadership.  Fischler and I both believe that this will not come from one country, government, business, or individual. We also agree that the steps that need to be taken for this global transition must come from the combined wisdom of academia, business, governments, civil society, and culture.

Our first combined project is also our most ambitious:  to establish, with the support of some of the most prominent world leaders from these sectors, a new global think tank, details of which will be announced later this week.

Most importantly for the global transformation, I believe we need a change in narrative. The existing narratives on the Sustainable Development Goals, how to manage the resource crisis, the governance crisis, and the social crisis all need to be transformed into positive discussions. They need to be narratives of hope and of a positive future.  This will not be an easy challenge.

Highlights from Alpbach

IIASA has been extremely privileged to take part in Alpbach this year.  At the end of the forum I took part in discussions with European Commission President Jose Barroso, Heinz Fischer (President of Austria), Kandeh K. Yumkella (Chair of UN Energy), Habbib Haddad (CEO of WAMDA), Jakaya Kikwete (President of the United Republic of Tanzania), and IPCC Chair and Nobel Prize Laureate Rajendra Pachauri. We had a big obligation and responsibility to make concrete specific steps on what was agreed, and I am happy to have been able to contribute where both IIASA’s and my research can be of service.

Although I have been privileged to meet many leaders this week, I’d like to mention just two in this small space. First, I am grateful to my colleague and friend Jeff Sachs, who participated with me in a number of discussions this week, for his continued support of IIASA. I agree fully with him that to establish a global knowledge network, and to work on changing the narratives about transformation, we need a goal.  Second I was privileged to meet Erhard Busek, former Austrian science minister from 1989 to 1994, a time when Europe was uniting and therefore IIASA’s entire future was in question. His involvement with IIASA during that time helped shape the Institute’s future course, leading to today’s role as a globally recognized science and policy bridge-builder.

village of alpbach in tyrol

The Alpbach forum brings an amazing array of leaders and thinkers to a tiny town in the Tyrolean Alps for weeks of discussion and ideas. It was a privilege to take part. Image courtesy EFA