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Billions Unserved: Can We Feed the World in This Century?

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From left, James Gerber, Jerry Hatfield, Paul R. Ehrlich, Kenneth E. Kunkel, Felix Kogan | AAAS/Ashley Gilleland

It is a threat to us all. Combined with climate change, it could trigger a global war or society's collapse.

It is not terrorism, an asteroid impact, or even an emergent viral plague. It is the bottoming out of our food supply, and the risk that it could happen in the next 35 years is real, experts said at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

"Agriculture is at the very center of our existence," said Paul Ehrlich, a biologist at Stanford University, as he and four other scientists participated in a 15 February panel discussion of food security in the 21st century.

A sense of bluntness and urgency hung over the room as the panelists addressed the perils for food production in a century that will be shaped by a changing climate, unchecked population growth, and a lack of political will for effective policy-driven solutions.

But even as the panelists gazed toward the future, it was hard to ignore the complete inadequacy of today's food security.

"We're doing a lousy job of feeding people today," mused Ehrlich at a press conference following the panel discussion.

"Agriculture is at the very center of our existence."

Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University
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Paul Ehrlich | AAAS/Ashley Gilleland

Last year, over 800 million people worldwide were chronically undernourished, according to the U.S. Food and Agricultural Organization. Adding to that number people who do not get enough food due to regular shortages or have chronic dietary deficiencies, Ehrlich stated that approximately one-third of the world's 7.3 billion people are food insecure.

He and the other panelists stressed that the problems of today will only worsen as the planet's population swells to 9 billion mid-century. To meet growing food demands, production of key staple crops like corn and wheat must increase by 38 to 67 percent, according to Jerry Hatfield of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Currently, no country is on a path to reach this goal for corn, rice, wheat, or soybeans.

Between 2000 and 2050, "we basically have to produce the same amount of food as we produced in the last 500 years," Hatfield added.

James Gerber, who co-directs the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota, pointed out that population demands alone would mean doubling food production this century. But most of the planet's productive land is already devoted to cultivation or livestock, so these increases must make use of existing agricultural land.

"We're definitely not on track," Gerber concluded.

Climate change could also strain agricultural production to its breaking point. A warming planet will bring more extreme weather events to agricultural regions, including torrential precipitation, extreme heat, and more frequent drought.

"Drought is likely the biggest figure threat to food security," said Kenneth Kunkel of NOAA's National Climactic Data Center.

Kunkel studies how extreme weather affects corn production in the U.S. Midwest. Over the past 40 years, five corn harvests in the Midwest dropped by over 20 percent from expected levels. Drought, most recently in 2012, caused three of these lower harvests. 

From the Midwest's corn belt to the wheat fields of India and Pakistan, the concentration of crop production into regional and local breadbaskets makes food production more vulnerable to extreme weather events. For eight of the first 15 years this century, global grain consumption outpaced grain production due to droughts in key breadbasket regions worldwide, according to Felix Kogan from NOAA's Center for Satellite Applications and Research.

For eight of the first 15 years this century, global grain consumption outpaced grain production due to droughts in key breadbasket regions worldwide.

Felix Kogan, NOAA

Hatfield emphasized the need to improve food management practices in a warming world. Improved infrastructure and food storage capacity will keep food from spoiling before reaching a market. But future cultivation practices must also take into account local variations in weather, soil quality, irrigation, and other conditions to improve production and make better use of scarce land.

Kogan described how satellites monitor crop health and stress levels on cultivated land. He hopes that these observations can help farmers and government officials estimate yields and monitor the effects of drought and other extreme weather events. In time, satellites may also help predict drought conditions in time for farmers to adjust crop production.

The panel concluded that, while there is no quick fix to increase food production or adapt to climate change, science has provided — and in many cases tested — potential solutions. From reducing consumption and waste to better monitoring and coordination of crop production, they feel that research has provided a clear path forward.

"We know at least what we ought to be trying," said a frustrated Ehrlich.

At the press conference, each panelist offered one solution that could help alleviate stress on food production, improve food security, or adapt cultivation practices to climate change.  Kunkel stressed reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Gerber would like to see consumers shift their diets away from resource-intensive foods like red meat. Kogan emphasized the importance of crop and climate monitoring systems, while Hatfield lauded research to improve the efficiency of crop production. But Ehrlich believed that most policy proposals are dead on arrival in our current political system.

"Get the money out of politics," he stressed.

Panelists agreed that the window of opportunity is narrow to adapt to the worst effects of climate change and overpopulation, perhaps as small as two or three decades. But, the lack of political will worldwide keeps money for solutions and research from flowing.

"The public ought to be demanding it," said Ehrlich.

[Credit for associated teaser image: Crucifix Jean-Luc/Unsplash.com]

Author

James Urton