How to Feed a Hungry World

Terry D. Etherton

As readers of Terry Etherton Blog on Biotechnology appreciate, I have written a great deal about the looming World population growth, and the challenges we will confront in feeding the World’s population over the next 40 years.

Recently, the scientific journal, Nature, published an excellent series of articles about this topic (July 29 issue).  This is noteworthy because Nature is the preeminent scientific journal in the World.  It is telling that the leading life science journal in the World focused much of the July 29 issue on this topic.

In the Editorial in this issue, How to Feed a Hungry World, several important issues are presented that must be overcome if we are to produce and distribute sufficient food to feed the projected population of the World in 2050, about 10 billion people (the current World population is approximately 6.9 billion).

The challenges that lie ahead include:

1.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has gone on record as saying that the task of feeding the World’s population in 2050 is “easily possible”.  I find this hard to agree with unless there is large-scale transition of tropical forests and “wildlands”, largely in South America and Africa, to production agriculture.  Doing this comes with a cost that I don’t think many support, not the least of which is the availability of water for animal and crop production, and the destruction of wildlife habitat.  Now what?  The only feasible approach is to increase food production efficiency (for additional information please see my earlier blog Feeding the World and Defending Agricultural Science).

2.  The Editorial champions the idea that that a second Green Revolution is needed. At the core of this recommendation is the urgent need to increase the investment in agricultural science research, which in most countries, including the United States, has been falling since the late 1970s.  There is a pressing need for new crop varieties that produce higher yields per acre, use less water, fertilizer and other inputs.  On the animal “side”, developing and adopting biotechnologies that improve productive efficiency are needed.  The new crop varieties will largely arise from advances made in the application of biotechnology to produce subsequent generations of genetically modified (GM) crops…and these will need to be approved and adopted for use in a timely manner by society.  To date, that has been a daunting challenge.

3.  Science and technology will be important to solve the problem of feeding the World’s population; however, they are not the sole solution.  There are countless contemporary biotechnologies and technologies “on the shelf” that could enhance food productivity and productive efficiency, if implemented, in developing countries, and help reduce the incidence of hunger in the World.  However, this requires money, and raises the question of who is going to pay (see:  The Food System and Feeding the World)?

The Editorial in Nature points out that the FAO has estimated that funding invested in the food system in the developing World must double to about $83 billion a year to meet the  “2050 challenge”.  And, most of this needs to go to improving infrastructure of the food system from production to transportation, as well as storage and processing.

4.  The Editorial also presents the provocative point that countries that pay their farmers subsidies make it difficult for farmers in developing countries to gain a foothold in World markets.  One example that illustrates the magnitude of this problem is that countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development pay subsidies to their farmers that total about $1 billion a day! Solving this will be challenging especially since politicians in many countries are strong advocates for supporting subsidies to farmers (it seems to help them in re-election campaigns).

Back to the “now what” question.  There is a pressing need to launch the second green revolution.  Science will be a core piece of this; however, to position the global village to successfully feed the World’s population by 2050 it will be necessary to develop a strategy that integrates not only scientists and farmers, but also ecologists, economists, food systems experts, social scientists as well as policy makers.  And, over-turning some arcane policy decisions (i.e., farmer subsidies in developed countries) that need to be junked.

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