The world today is so different than it was a hundred years ago that the numbers seem hard to believe. Since 1900, average life expectancy has more than doubled. In the last 30 years, extreme poverty has declined by 66% even as the population grew by more than 40%. And while hunger used to be commonplace, humanity has the potential to eliminate it altogether.
How did we improve so much, so fast?
There are a lot of answers. Innovations in technology. Breakthroughs in medicine. But next to the supercomputers and wonder drugs, something else was happening:
Innovations in plant biology were helping humanity overcome some of our greatest challenges.
Progress and biology
Agriculture itself was one of humankind’s first inventions. We used to roam in search of food, but domesticating crops allowed us to put down our own roots. Soon, civilizations formed, followed by written language, cities and governments.
For thousands of years, improvements in plant biology would be linked to human progress. In the past century, such breakthroughs have been life-saving.
The green revolution
During the 1940s, the increase in life expectancy started to pose a challenge of its own. The population was booming, outpacing the amount of food farmers could grow. Drought and crop disease only made matters worse.
In Mexico, wheat farmers were fighting an uphill battle against stem rust and agronomist Norman Borlaug thought he made a mistake taking on the challenge. But his work would usher in a new era in agriculture.
Borlaug crossed thousands of lines of wheat, “borrowing” beneficial genetic traits along the way: disease resistance, shorter plants, heartier stems, and more grain. It added up to new resilient varieties that could take advantage of synthetic soil fertilization to increase the farmer’s harvest and meet growing demand.
The approach would be replicated in crops all over the world, saving what some estimated to be a billion lives and earning Borlaug the only Nobel Peace Prize ever awarded to a plant scientist.
The rainbow papaya
While Borlaug was in Mexico, Ringspot virus was hitting Hawaiian papayas. By the 1990s, it had spread to almost every region where the fruit was grown. The papaya was about to disappear. Until it didn’t.
Scientists were able to develop a genetically modified variety that was immune to the disease. Known as the Rainbow papaya, it produced 125,000 lbs of fruit per acre compared to just 5,000 lbs for infected trees, effectively saving the Hawaiian papaya industry.
Growing into the future
With every advancement, we free ourselves to focus on new challenges and new possibilities.
Conserving Natural Resources
Scientists are finding inventive ways to conserve the world’s land, water and energy by looking at crop DNA.
Researchers are uncovering genetic traits that help plants use less water. They’re finding ways for crops to defend themselves against pests. And at Bayer, we’re taking a page from Borlaug’s book, developing shorter, sturdier corn to withstand heavy winds and reduce crop loss in the field.
Combined, these innovations are changing how we farm, helping us grow enough, on less land, and with fewer inputs.
Enhancing nutritional value
Scientists are also exploring how to make food better for us.
Researchers at Bayer are breeding new varieties of Rapeseed (think: canola) to produce vegetable oil without trans-fatty acids. This could allow us to enjoy a wider variety of foods without increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other conditions associated with high cholesterol.
Meanwhile, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding breeding efforts for a disease-resistant and nutritionally-fortified African cassava. The staple crop could soon deliver 40%-70% of daily zinc and iron requirements for Sub-Saharan women and children.
Fighting climate change
Innovations in agriculture are helping farmers fight a changing climate on two fronts. Farmers are better equipped to grow food in adverse conditions, and they’re also able to address the root causes of climate change head-on.
Every idea that increases farm efficiency means farmers can grow enough on less land. That has the potential to help reduce deforestation and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Modern herbicides also allow farmers to prevent weeds with less plowing. That protects the soil by reducing tractor passes which decreases tractor emissions and helps keep more carbon in the ground where it belongs.
Since 2013, South American soybean farmers using advanced seeds, fewer pesticides and less plowing have been able to keep approximately 15 billion lbs. of carbon in the ground (the equivalent of removing 3.3 million cars from the road).
Addressing evolving challenges
There’s no way to know exactly what challenges the future holds. But we know this: Biological breakthroughs have fueled human progress in countless ways, and continued innovation will help us all reimagine what’s possible, for agriculture and our planet.