5 ways environment and agriculture professionals make an impact on the world

Kieren Jacobs
Team GradAustralia
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From climate change and ocean acidification to dwindling freshwater supplies, endangered species, and imminent food shortages: worrying issues related to the environment and agriculture dominate today’s headlines. If there’s a silver lining, it might be that they present an opportunity for professionals in the environment and agriculture sectors to roll up their sleeves and make a real difference to the planet and its inhabitants. Here are five ways in which they are doing just that.

Developing pest and blight resistant crops

As the human population grows, it becomes ever more important that we have ways to protect crops from pests and blights (plant diseases). Already, these two challenges account for 40% of the global loss in food production. Some of the worst offenders include desert locusts, South American rubber blight (an untreatable fungal infection that kills rubber trees), and the khapra beetle, an insect that destroys grain, is resistant to most pesticides, and can survive for more than twelve months without food.

Fortunately, new technologies are enabling scientists to produce crops that are resistant to otherwise devastating pests and blights. For example, since the 1980s, farmers have been able to plant strains of corn that are resistant to the western corn rootworm, which destroys about one billion dollars worth of non-resistant corn each year.

More recently, scientists at the CSIRO have used genetic techniques to overcome the Barley yellow dwarf virus (which halves yields of maize, barley, and other cereals). They’ve also developed insect-resistant cotton varieties, and are currently working on ways to combat wheat leaf rust, a fungal disease responsible for twenty percent losses in the industry.

Scientists who develop pest and blight resistant crops are engaged in an unending race, for, very often, pests and blights learn to overcome new obstacles to causing damage. For example, they’ve been fighting the Colorado potato beetle for half a century—during this time, it’s developed resistance to 52 different types of pesticide!

With new genetic techniques emerging fast, scientists are developing new methods of protecting the precious global food supply. This makes the improvement of crop resistance an appealing challenge for grads who want to innovate their way towards having a significant impact on the world community.

Engineering certain foods to make them more nutritious or useful

Genetic modification is often considered to be a controversial idea. However, people have been improving crops for generations using genetic techniques, such as cross-breeding and crop selection. The techniques scientists use today are simply more precise, allowing them to modify the genome itself.

This has already allowed agriculturalists and environmentalists to achieve impressive goals related to human nutrition, sustainability, and crop versatility. Some examples include the development (in Australia) of biofortified rice strains, with increased iron levels to combat anemia; the engineering of crops that require less water or which can grow at different altitudes and temperatures; and the modification of some soybean varieties to make them resistant to certain herbicides, and enhance their production of healthy oil.

With only 15 crops accounting for 90 percent of the world’s food energy intake (the top three are wheat, rice, and corn), the ability to develop strains that are more nutritious or more versatile promises to have a direct impact on billions of people. Some of the professionals working to achieve this goal include geneticists, biologists, environmental scientists, nutritionists, ecologists, and soil scientists.

Creating policies designed to increase food security

A community—be it an individual state, or the global population—is said to achieve food security when all community members have reliable physical, social, and economic access to foods that meet their dietary requirements and promote health and activity. Food security is about ensuring crops, and other food sources, are available (in sufficient quantities, and to an acceptable quality); accessible (via reliable supply chains); stable (for example, resistant to blights or changing environmental conditions); and useful (insofar as they meet nutritional or industrial requirements).

Unfortunately, various factors, from global warming to population growth, now threaten food security in many areas. Even in areas where people can access a sufficient quantity of food, diets that lack variation often lead to malnutrition and conditions such as fatigue, anemia, developmental impairment, and so on.

For policy writers, this makes food security a significant concern. Whether working for international initiatives, like the UN World Food Program, or more local organisations, such as the Australian Government’s Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, policy makers are hard at work devising approaches that will protect food security while addressing environmental or social sources of inequality and vulnerability.

Designing new food sources and products

So far, we’ve focused on the ways in which some professionals in the agriculture and environmental sectors are improving existing food sources. However, some are involved in a different, albeit complementary, project: the development of new food sources.

The development of new food sources includes attempts to produce cultured meat (i.e. laboratory meat) in commercially viable quantities; research into the use of seaweed and algae to generate palatable food products; and studies of alternative food sources, such as insects, which are cheap, easy to cultivate, and more sustainable than traditional protein sources (such as the red meat from cattle and sheep).

Mastering new environments

Desertification is the process whereby deserts ‘claim’ adjoining lands that have become newly arid due to climatic phenomena or the removal of certain nutrients from the soil (usually by way of unsustainable farming practices). It can happen rapidly—the border of the Sahara, for example, shifts 48 kilometres south every year, claiming valuable farmland and engulfing whole communities.

One way of dealing with the changes brought on by processes such as desertification, ocean acidification, and deforestation is to reclaim, manage, or transform the new environments. For example, ecologists and environmental scientists are behind an ongoing project to limit the spread of the Sahara by planting an 8,000 kilometre long barrier of heat and drought resistant trees: the so-called ‘Great Green Wall’. Meanwhile, geneticists are working to develop crops with lower water consumption requirements, and engineers have developed ‘floating greenhouses’ that accelerate the conversion of seawater into freshwater and use it to irrigate crops.

These are just five incredible ways you can have an impact on our environment and agriculture, both locally and globally - the opportunities are limitless. Want to know more about finding a job in the environment and agriculture sector? We give you tips on how to get ahead, read more here at GradAustralia.