Terry D. Etherton
Much has been written about the “Food System” and how we should go about feeding the world. To put “much” into context, I ran a Google search using the phrases “food systems” or food system; got 906,000 returns for the former and 759,000 returns for the latter phrase.
Why the keen interest in the food system? One reason is that many scientists (including me) believe we need to apply science to make new discoveries in the food system that will help meet the food needs of the growing World population. Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Laureate, who passed away on September 12, 2009, and who is credited for launching the “Green Revolution” to feed the World was clear about this. He passionately believed that science should be the most important tool to solve world hunger.
There is no dispute about the need to feed the world. Many in society understand the scale of the challenge that lies ahead to feed 10 billion people by the year 2050.
The amount of food needed to feed the world over the next 40 years is equivalent to all the food that has been produced since our existence on this planet (see Metabolic Modifiers: Effects on the Nutrient Requirements of Food-Producing Animals; National Academies Press; 1994)!
Our ability to feed the world assumes that climatic conditions will not be problematic for food production. This is not a “given”. In addition, not many individuals champion the idea that more wildlife habitat or tropical rain forest be destroyed to plant crops. And, there is the assumption that a targeted bioterrorism strike on the food system will not occur with the consequences of up-heaving food production. The latter assumption is problematic. For example, The Lugar Survey on Proliferation Threats and Responses (Senator Lugar, 2005) estimates the probability of a major biological terrorist attack in the United States in the next 10 years to be about 33%.
Another challenge to food production and distribution is the ever-present impact of geopolitical strife.
Collectively, these issues add additional challenges to the problem of feeding the world that looms ahead.
The challenge of feeding the world is one with many elements that extend beyond the application of science. Science is important but other factors loom large. There is the question of what countries or international agencies are going to pay for developing the science or providing the food?
Another key question is: Will the “have” countries (i.e, developed countries) share technologies that enhance food production with developing countries? The historical record for this is not encouraging. Moreover, there is the question of whether the technologies be provided for free or a fee? If the former, who “covers” the cost of research and development, as well as commercial application? The fee-based approach is daunting given that developing countries and their farmers, in many instances, can not afford the technology.
Another issue that is not discussed much in the public media relates to how will the public respond to an event where food availability is limited in grocery stores in the United States?
You might ask how could this happen? One way would be the intentional (and targeted) release of a plant or animal pathogen (or both) that has the potential to upheave the food system. The economic cost of the Foot-and-Mouth Disease outbreak in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2001 is a good example of the impact that could occur.
The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the UK has published a report (Cost-Benefit Analysis of Foot-and-Mouth Disease Control Strategies) that summarized the economic impact of the outbreak…it cost about $12.3 billion!
Beyond the economic impact of a possible disease outbreak on food production, is the question: how will the American public respond to an situation where food availability is limited? Not well. There very likely will be a storm of public concern that reflects the extent of food shortages. The degree to which the public is scared will determine to what extent the fabric of civil behavior tears. Another reminder that in the absence of food security national security can not be attained.