Check out this short essay from David Frum, my favorite conservative thinker, on what he sees as likely agricultural crises next year. Food being rather important to people, Frum expects such crises to have serious political implications especially in the developing world. As you may remember, the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt began with popular discontent over the high price of bread.
I don't know if Frum's prediction for 2013 will turn out to be accurate or not, but with climate change impacts, loss of agricultural land to urbanization, soil loss, resource constraints, and a global population increase of 40% or more in the next couple of decades (which will require global agricultural output to double), you can bet that it will be in coming years and decades. I would definitely bet on low-cost, high-output sustainable agriculture being one of the major growth industries of the future.
The impacts on agriculture from climate change driven droughts, floods, and heat stress are obvious. You're probably also aware of looming local and regional water shortages, soil loss, and soil salinization. But the biggest resource issue you've probably never heard of is the likely shortfall in phosphorus, one of the major elements of fertilizer.
And here's where space comes in. Space-derived technologies are one of the ways we're going to be able to address agriculture production issues. I'm not suggesting this will be sufficient - there are lots of tedious drought/flood-resistant crop R&D, new irrigation technologies, and a myriad of other disciplinary approaches that are as or more important. Funding in those areas should be top priority - yes, even above space funding. But my bet is that space agriculture will turn out to make important contributions to the bigger puzzle of how to feed 10 billion people.
Just to be clear, I'm not saying we'd grow food off-world and ship it to Earth. I am saying that the technologies needed to figure out how to grow stuff up there have critical applications to solve sustainability problems on Earth. If we can figure out how to feed a crew of 6 or 8 in a self-sufficient manner on the surface of the moon or Mars, using only (very limited!) local ISRU inputs, we'll have also made significant contribution to solving food production constraints on Earth. Mine is a spinoff argument, not a colonization one.
This will become a big issue of the future. If not in 2013...then soon enough.
Read Frum's essay after the jump.