Contributed by Ann Lee-Jeffs, Business Manager, ACS Green Chemistry Institute®
Jack Bobo holds a special place in the world of food, science, and agriculture. He is a leading edge thinker and speaker working at the intersection of science, law and policy. Jack is responsible for global outreach to foreign audiences and senior foreign officials on global agricultural trends, climate change, food security, and biotechnology. Jack serves as the State Department's ex officio representative to USDA's Federal Advisory Committee on 21st Century Agriculture. As Senior Advisor, Jack travels frequently, speaking on behalf of the Department at international conferences and meetings to present U.S. agricultural trade and development policies to foreign audiences, including journalists, policy makers, students, and scientists. I met Jack over coffee in late February at his office at the U.S. State Department. We had an engaging discussion about the intersection of green or sustainable chemistry, food and agriculture.
Ann Lee-Jeffs: Why do you think consumers should care more about food safety and the source of their food?
Jack Bobo: Most people spend little time thinking about where their food comes from, how it is produced and how it makes it to their plate. Until something goes wrong, that is. As soon as there is a problem — E. coli in spinach or salmonella in peanut butter — people understandably begin to ask questions about food safety inspections, practices of the agriculture industry, and larger questions about how farming has changed in the past 50 years.
The same occurs with respect to hunger. Until 2008, when people in the Middle East and Haiti started rioting because of high food prices, the issue of access and availability of safe and nutritious food had practically disappeared from public discourse. Most of us underestimate the importance of a stable and safe food supply to our society and our standard of living.
Ann Lee-Jeffs: With the global population expected to reach nine billion in less than 40 years, what do you think is the role of green/sustainable chemistry in the agriculture space and safe food supply?
Jack Bobo: With the global population expected to reach nine billion in less than 40 years, the sustainable production of agriculture will be increasingly on the minds of governments, private industry, and even many consumers. Not only do we have to increase the amount of food available, we have to find ways to minimize its footprint on the planet. There is no activity that humankind engages in that has a bigger impact on the planet than agriculture. This is true in terms of impacts on land and water resources as well as in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
Therefore one of the great challenges that confront all of us in the next 40 years is to figure out how to maximize the production of food while minimizing the negative consequences of agriculture — from polluted waterways to disappearing rainforests.
This seems like a daunting task, and yet, science and technology, and especially chemistry, have proven capable of increasing production year after year for decades. Prior to the 1900s, agricultural yields increased at a painfully slow pace. However, at the beginning of the last century a series of agricultural breakthroughs ushered in dramatic growth in food production. The first of these revolutions was the advent of synthetic fertilizer in 1915, followed by mechanization, hybrid seeds, pesticides and, most recently, genetically engineered (GE) crops. Corn is a great example; to produce a bushel of corn we use 50 percent less water, 40 percent less land, 60 percent less soil erosion, 40 percent less energy, and 35 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than we did just three decades ago.
Ann Lee-Jeffs: Why is green/sustainable engineering so important to ensure that agriculture saves the planet instead of destroying it? What do you see happening that makes you think we are going in the right direction?
Jack Bobo: In order to feed the 9 billion people on the planet in 2050, global agriculture will need to produce 60 percent more food using less land, less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides. In other words, we will need to do everything better than we are doing it today and our rivers and lakes are already running dry. The rapid pace of technological development suggests that scientists may, indeed, be able to sustain the growth of the past. But this will only happen if scientists are able to apply the most advanced technologies to the problems at hand. This is a hardly a certainty at the moment given opposing views of the future as reflected in the slow food movement and liberalized trade in food products. Figuring out how to understand and balance these real and, in some ways, opposing trends, will determine the future health of our planet.
We need the best ideas from organic and ecological food systems combined with modern advances in molecular breeding and genetics if we are to address this pressing challenge and sustainably feed a growing planet. I will be the first to admit that science doesn’t always get it right. It’s also true, however, that you can’t get it right without science. The good news is that after 2050 population growth will slow dramatically and everything will get easier. So, if we are able to get to 2050 without cutting down our forests and draining our rivers and lakes, we will be good forever. The next 40 years are going to be the most important 40 years there have ever been in the history of agriculture.
We owe it to coming generations to use every tool available, from organic production to biotechnology, to increase the quantity and quality of food while minimizing the footprint of agriculture. This will require the attention and effort of all of us. Our lives and the lives of our children depend on it. And, if we’re successful, agriculture just might save the planet.
Ann Lee-Jeffs: What is your advice for the scientists and engineers who are working in the agriculture and food sectors regarding sustainable/green chemistry and engineering?
Jack Bobo: There has never been a more exciting time to work at the intersection of green chemistry/engineering and food and agriculture. Agriculture cuts across global challenges related to water, land, air and climate change. These challenges are driving demand for new technologies to promote public and environmental health. But there is also consumer demand for greener products that will accelerate the transition to a greener economy. Not only are new jobs being created every day, there are new companies being created and even entire new sectors of the economy that didn’t exist 10 years ago.
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