It’s a cycle nearly as old as human history. Plow, plant, harvest, and repeat. It worked for our ancestors, and it’s working for us now, though with ever more problems, from obliterating soil nutrients to encouraging erosion. And things may get worse in the future, too, when climate change threatens—whether through drowning or drought—to topple our food production system at the moment we’ll need it most: In less than 90 years, the world’s population could crest between 9 and 12 billion, and that will test the limits of farming.
“Soil quality around the world has become degraded,” says Sieglinde Snapp, an agroecologist at Michigan State University. “So how are we going to feed more people with higher quality food? How will we provide more protein? And the big question is: how are we going to feed 9 billion in a sustainable way with degraded soil?”
There are myriad possibilities. Among the options is raising the output of current farming techniques using genetic modification, specialized fungi, or precision agriculture. But another ambitious idea is to extend the growing season, which will involve rewriting much of the book of agriculture. In other words, if we were to redo the agricultural revolution today, what would it look like?