SINGAPORE – The agricultural sector is responsible for an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions – equivalent to emissions from all the world’s electricity generation, said Nobel laureate Steven Chu.
Therefore, there is a need to transform the sector – through a fourth agricultural revolution – where higher crop yields to feed the world’s population are produced sustainably without the use of fertilizers or insecticides.
Professor Chu, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology and Energy Sciences and Engineering at Stanford University, spoke to The Straits Times on September 13 at the Nobel Prize Dialogue 2022: The Future We Want Together.
The event took place at Raffles City Convention Centre, where Nobel laureates, students and other experts came together to discuss how to improve people’s lives and build a better future. It was organized by the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore.
Prof. Chu, 74, American, noted how previous agricultural revolutions helped the world’s population thrive through the domestication of animals, the cultivation of staple crops and the use of fertilizers to increase crop yields.
“But there have also been unintended consequences – it takes a lot of energy to produce fertilizer, and fertilizer runoff (into rivers and streams) is a powerful greenhouse gas effect,” he added.
Fertilizer runoff releases nitrous oxide, which has a warming potential about 300 times greater than carbon dioxide.
Some solutions are tested, such as B. Creating microbes that can take nitrogen from the soil to feed crops like corn, wheat, and rice, eliminating the need for fertilizers.
This has already been tried on a small scale in the United States, where 50 percent of the fertilizer needed to grow corn has been replaced with microbes on some farms. However, this is unlikely to develop on a larger scale until it is profitable for farmers, according to Prof. Chu.
To prevent less methane being released by cow regurgitation, it’s also possible to reduce the number of microbes found in cattle by 90 percent, perhaps with a change in diet or vaccination, he said.
Prof. Chu served as US Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013 and helped implement then-President Barack Obama’s agenda to invest in clean energy, reduce US dependence on foreign oil, and address the global climate crisis.
Prof. Chu helped spur the development of a funding agency called Advanced Research Projects For Energy, which invested in projects like accelerating the development of solar energy to reduce its costs.
“In 2010, we had a crazy ambition to cut (the cost of solar) by a quarter in 10 years, and we managed to get it to a quarter in seven years,” he said. The feat required a detailed roadmap and required close collaboration with the industry.