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A Chat With: Mark Lynas – sustainable agriculture key to food security amid climate change

August 23, 2016
Environmentalist Mark Lynas

Environmentalist Mark Lynas

Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of CIMMYT

EL BATAN, Mexico (CIMMYT) – Sustainable agriculture must be adopted globally if natural ecosystems are to be protected as food production increases to feed a projected population of 9.7 billion by 2050, said author and environmentalist Mark Lynas.

An immediate move to transform overall agricultural practices is needed to overcome the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, said Lynas who will speak at a conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in September.

Rather than expanding agricultural production into new terrain, Lynas, who is a visiting fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said sustainable intensification agricultural practices are preferable to boost productivity while preserving environmental equilibrium.

A former critic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) Lynas changed his mind when he said it became clearer to him that there was a scientific consensus that genetic engineering was safe. In his current role at Cornell University, he now advises on public sector biotechnology in developing countries.

Lynas will deliver a presentation during a session entitled “Future Landscapes” at the CIMMYT 50th anniversary conference on Sept. 29, 2016.

He shared some views on the future of agriculture in the following interview.

Q: What are the key challenges the world faces?

Well, it’s become something of a cliche now to talk about how we need to double world food supply by 2050 in order to feed the growing human population. I’m keen to add an environmental perspective to this statement. We need to double world food production but at the same time to shrink the area of cultivated land in order to protect natural ecosystems. With the ongoing crises in climate change and biodiversity loss, we cannot afford to plow up the rain forests or other ecologically valuable areas, so the only viable option is to sustainably intensify existing cultivated areas, hopefully with “rewilding” of spared lands. Obviously, this is a broad-brush assertion, and there is a lot of geographical complexity and nuance underlying this, that we should not forget.

Q: How does your area of specialization address these challenges? What innovation do you see improving agriculture?

I’m particularly focused on biotechnology in agriculture, which can help improve sustainability in many ways. Basically, if you can move from chemistry to biology in addressing challenges, from water use to yield to pest control, so much the better for the environment. An example would be the use of the Bt gene, which produces a protein in the plant that is toxic only to the pest itself and harmless to everything else, including us. That’s a much more sustainable option than indiscriminate insecticide sprays that have serious environmental and health impacts. However, because of their total opposition to genetic engineering, anti-GMO campaigners end up defending continued pesticide use, which is a very strange place for supposedly green activists to be. I’ve seen this at first hand in Bangladesh with the campaign against Bt brinjal. Anti-science superstition of this sort can end up being very environmentally damaging.

Q: What outcomes would you like to see from the CIMMYT conference?

CIMMYT experts were co-authors on a recent paper,  “Reducing emissions from agriculture to meet the 2 °C target” in Global Change Biology, that challenged the agriculture sector to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions significantly — by 1 billion tons a year — in order to contribute to meeting the 2 degrees C international climate change target. I thought this was a great initiative and I would love to see more attention given to it by other stakeholders at the CIMMYT conference. I really hope it becomes a talked about target that ends up being matched with real commitments and actions in the field.