Evolutionary implications of economies of scale in food production for the sustainability of agricultural systems

By Mauricio R. Bellon, Swette Center Research Professor.

Last month, I participated in the Sustainability Research & Innovation Congress 2022 (SRI2022) that took place in Pretoria, South Africa from June 20-24. The Congress is “a transdisciplinary gathering in sustainability – a space of dynamic advocacy for sustainability scholarship, innovation, collaboration, and action." It takes place annually in different parts of the world and brings together global leaders, experts, industry, practitioners, and innovators to inspire action and promote transformation in sustainability.

Within the Congress, a network of scientists that I belong to, and that works on connecting evolutionary biology and diversity to human well-being (Evolution for Earth Sustainability, EvolvES), organized a session called, “The contribution of evolutionary thinking to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.” The session explored how the theories, data, and tools from evolutionary biology (i.e., evolutionary thinking) can be used to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. There were diverse presentations during the session on topics such as the mitigation of future pandemics through evolutionary thinking, evolution, wildlife conservation and disease, the role of DNA barcoding in sustainable future, the evolution and indigenous plant use. During this session I made the presentation: “Evolutionary implications of economies of scale in food production for the sustainability of agricultural systems.” Following the presentations there was a brief discussion moderated by a local science journalist among the panelist and the public on how evolutionary thinking can contribute solutions to some of the greatest problems and challenges facing human society and the environment today.

A video of my presentation can be seen here (link), and the abstract is presented below.

Economies of scale are a fundamental factor underpinning the supply of “cheap” food in commercial agriculture. However, economies of scale foster “evolutionary disservices,” i.e., costs to humans derived from evolutionary processes. The COVID 19 pandemic is an example of an evolutionary disservice attested by the evolution of variants that continue to infect humans creating negative impacts on society. The reason economies of scale create evolutionary disservices in agricultural systems is that producing food is a biological process that involves numerous species and processes besides the crops or species of direct human use. Economies of scale depend on standardization and homogeneity at grand scale. Standardization and homogeneity have unintended effects on the evolution of competing organisms (weeds) and predating organisms (pests) by fostering large effective population sizes, new and very strong selection pressures, and creating the ability to migrate over large or new areas, all of which increase the number of widely adapted variants that can appear due to mutations, and in turn these variants can disperse easily due to the connectivity of large areas managed in a uniform manner. Using evolutionary thinking (theories, data, and tools from evolutionary biology) can help stakeholders understand and manage the trade-offs between producing “cheap” food at scale and the disservices that this generates. Bringing this evolutionary lens to study and manage evolutionary disservices in commercial agricultural systems can contribute to lessen their negative societal impacts. True Cost Accounting (TCA) is an economic assessment framework that considers not only the monetary costs and benefits, but also the invisible and unaccounted positive and negative factors and unintended effects involved in food systems. However, except for one study [1], TCA has not incorporated evolutionary externalities in its assessment. Ignoring evolutionary disservices threatens the long-term viability and sustainability of our food systems due to increased difficulty and expense of controlling and managing weeds and pests, besides the health and environmental costs associated with the intensive use of herbicides and pesticides. By explicitly incorporating the evolutionary science tool kit into a TCA framework we can effectively address the evolutionary disservices that are currently ignored in the TCA framework leading to better decisions about the food we produce, consume and support.

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