Mann Discusses The Changing Landscape of Food & Farming

By Adeney Zo
UCLA Luskin Student Writer

“This is a project that started the day my daughter was born…” began Charles C. Mann, a UCLA 2014 Regents’ Lecturer and award-winning author and journalist.

Despite the summer heat, the UCLA Luskin Terrace was packed with students and non-students interested in hearing Mann’s lecture on the future of food production and farming. Mann is most well-known for writing the New York Times bestseller 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created and 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Keck Award for best book of the year). Additionally, Mann’s articles on various topics in science and technology have been published in the nation’s leading magazines and newspapers.

Mann’s lecture tackled the issue of how the global population over the past 200 years has increased exponentially without significant increase in food production nor the technology to speed up the process.

As the global per-capita income increases, people who once lived in destitution now require the resources of a middle-class lifestyle. Other significant problems include the loss of arable land (“suburbs eating up the farms”), increasing competition for water, intensification of agriculture and global climate change. These issues further feed into the need to counter growing consumption rates with drastic changes in production and farming.

“When my daughter is my age, there will be 10 billion people in the world,” Mann explained. “We need to double the food production by 2050, but we only see about a 2.4% increase [in production] each year.”

In order to combat the food crisis, researchers have proposed two general paths by which the world can increase food production. The first is to industrially produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that can grow significantly faster than ordinary crops. Researchers have been experimenting for years to change RuBisCO, the essential enzyme for converting carbon dioxide to glucose. RuBisCO is by nature incredibly slow and faulty, but plant growth can speed up significantly if researchers can manipulate this enzyme.

Farms in Thailand have already begun implementing this genetically engineered production system with their rubber tree farms. As the world’s number one producer of natural rubber, Thailand benefits economically from the monoculture production of rubber trees. Mann explains that converting once-diverse areas to rubber tree farms makes the most economical sense to local farmers on the short term, but these decisions have unforeseen and potentially catastrophic implications for biodiversity.

The second farming option is to transition from the large monoculture farms of today to local, diverse farms that grow different kinds of crops on a relatively small acreage of land. Mann gave the example of Lloyd Nichols’ farm outside Chicago — a farm with over 1,000 varieties of crops, high productivity and little to no chemical inputs. Nichols’ farm employs a staff of 19 people, including two people with masters’ degrees, in order to maximize the diversity and production of his farm. Mann cited this farm as an example of how the diversification of farms can potentially combat the food crisis in an ecofriendly and efficient way.

With these two options in mind, Mann reminded the audience that the future of food production relies on which path the world will choose over the next few years. He concluded: “It’s not a matter of scientific knowledge now, but a matter of human knowledge. So what will we choose?”

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