Dr. Robert McDonald, Vanguard Scientist with The Nature Conservancy, took time out of his schedule to answer some questions on his work, his presentation at BIO, and the issues of sustainability and agriculture.
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m the Vanguard Scientist at The Nature Conservancy, which works to preserve the diversity of wildlife and plants on Earth by protecting the habitats and ecological process on which they depend. We work throughout the U.S. and in more than 30 countries, and have about 700 scientists on staff who help us make science-based plans to fulfill our mission. My job is to think about global threats to biodiversity that we may need to do some more science or planning for, and then help us do that! One big part of my job is thinking about global agricultural expansion and intensification in the coming decades, and coming up with conservation strategies that can help minimize the biodiversity impacts of agricultural production.
You have been quoted as saying that “Urban dwellers influence land use on almost every hectare on Earth.” What do you mean by that?
More than half of humanity lives in cities, and that proportion will continue to increase in coming decades. Cities not only directly affect the landscape through urban development, they are also central places of economic consumption and growth. So the needs and desires of urban dwellers end up shaping human land-use over a much broader area. If, for example, newly well-off Chinese city dwellers want to eat more meat, then the Chinese landscape will be reshaped as agricultural producers satisfy that demand. So there is a profound link between what is happening in urban areas and what is happening in rural areas.
You will be on the panel “Environment, Economy and Society: Plant Biotechnology’s Role in Advancing Sustainable Development.” Would you provide a description of your presentation?
Conservationists use the word “sustainable” to talk about an end point, while agriculturalists use it to talk about a process. The dramatic growth in yields in the 20th century reduced agriculture’s per-bushel impact on the environment, but the total cumulative impact of agriculture on the environment has steadily increased. I will talk about sustainability in agriculture from the perspective of The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization that works with agricultural producers in thousands of projects through the U.S. and in more than 30 countries.
What is plant biotechnology’s role in advancing sustainable development?
From my perspective as a conservationist, biotechnology may potentially play two key roles. First, biotechnology may help to continue to increase yield from agricultural crops. As the world will have 2 billion more mouths to feed in 2050, increases in yield can help limit the area of agricultural expansion, which is of significant concern to conservationists. Second, biotechnology may be able to play a role in limiting the environmental impact of production, whether by making plants more water efficient or helping reduce nitrogen run-off from fields.
With a growing population and finite or shrinking resources, sustainable development seems like an important concept. Can the need to embrace sustainable development capture the attention of the public in the same way as climate change?
The public has always been receptive to the idea that we should leave our children a world as rich in natural resources as we have enjoyed, which is the core idea of sustainable development. In that sense, stopping the worst damage from climate change is the same thing as working for sustainable development. I think it is true, though, that folks can’t get behind sustainable development as an abstract concept, but only are motivated to act when a specific resource they care about is threatened and when they can see the effect in their own lives.