Monday, April 1, 2013

Why Crops Must Change

It is absurdly easy to predict that we will be growing different crops a generation from now. Some people focus on the genetically modified crops — crops genetically engineered to withstand shockingly high levels of specific herbicides. Accordingly, these specific herbicides have become so overused that they are rapidly losing their effectiveness. When the herbicides that go with genetically modified crops are abandoned, as they inevitably must be, the crops will no longer have a purpose. Others point to the changing climate, which is creating greater weather variability in half of the world’s most important croplands. Our current crops have been selected and adjusted to thrive in a certain exact kind of weather. When the weather of a growing season can’t be predicted at the beginning of the season, this kind of optimization is the kind of gambling where you can be almost certain to lose. Heritage versions of some of the same grains we grow now will do better, on average, when the weather becomes more unpredictable, even if they yield only half as much in “ideal” weather.

But there is more to the coming crop turnover than this. Even where the climate and weeds are not factors, our current crops are optimized for 20th century consumer tastes and 20th century farming equipment. In both areas, the 20th century represented a shocking departure from what came before, and its innovations have not fared so well in the 21st century. Current trends do not support the idea of more white flour any more than they support the idea of more fuel-hungry heavy equipment in the fields. Future farming equipment will have to be more nimble — more like robots than tractors — in order to take care of fields while not using so much expensive fossil fuels. The cost of fuel is enough of a factor that it will lead to crops that are compatible with the new equipment that is not so expensive to operate.

Another reason to expect change is that scientists may eventually come to grips with the process of nutrition. Already the current ideas of nutrition are as far ahead of the 20th century vitamins-and-minerals model as that was ahead of the 19th century nutritional model of meat and cabbage. Even if you look at vitamins and minerals, we still don’t understand why such a small fraction of them are actually absorbed and used, so that nutritional labeling and recommendations must be understood as impressionistic at best. However, answers in this area are starting to trickle in, and when we really know, I am certain we will change our minds about what we want to eat. Likely we will find we don’t have to eat so much, and that alone will change our current pattern of crops beyond recognition.