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Researchers at AAAS Annual Meeting Explore the Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People

Food prices are climbing again, sparking public protests in some developing nations. Already there are about 1 billion people in the world who are chronically hungry. And policy makers, looking to the future, are assessing how much more difficult the challenge could get by 2050, when another 2 billion people will push the world population to 9 billion.

Compounding their concerns are rising income levels in developing countries, which leads to a demand for more and better quality food. The world also is drawing down reserves of fresh water. And climate change holds the prospect that extremes of weather that are so detrimental to crop production—temperature, wind, and flood—so detrimental to crop production will become more common.

“By 2030 we are going to need 50% more food, 40% more available fresh water, and something on the order of 50% more low-carbon energy,” Sir John Beddington, the chief science adviser to the U.K. government, told a symposium 20 February at the AAAS Annual Meeting. “We need a radical redesign of global food systems.”
Beddington’s Government Office for Science in the United Kingdom released a project report in January, The Future of Food and Farming (2011), that laid out the challenges and policy recommendations.

Charles Godfray, the Oxford University professor who chaired the committee that wrote the report, said there are huge environmental consequences to opening up new lands such as the Amazon and Congo to commercial agricultural development. It does not make sense from an environmental or an economic perspective.

“There are limits to the land and fisheries that can be used,” Godfray said. “Inescapably, this means that to meet demand we are going to have to produce more food from the same amount of land.” He said existing farmland must be used in a more intense manner that increases both yields and sustainability.

Godfray said an investment must be made in research and technologies that will help to make this possible, as well as in the education and training of agricultural workers so that they are prepared to implement these innovations.

“We do not have the luxury of throwing away modern technology such as GM [genetically modified organisms], but similarly, GM is not a silver bullet. It is a technology that should be neither privileged nor discarded,” he said.

Other resources could be added just by reducing waste. “Thirty percent of all food that is produced never is actually consumed by humans,” Godfray said.

Low- and high-income countries differ tremendously in where the waste occurs. Developing countries tend to lose food to poor storage, preservation, and transit through the supply chain. A substantial investment in infrastructure will be required to improve this situation. In wealthy societies, “it tends to be us throwing away food in the home,” Godfray added. “A typical family in the US or Europe could save $1000 a year by avoiding waste.”

He called for the development of “an intercontinental series of bread baskets” of food stocks to help countries through short-term disruptions like flood or famine. The purpose would be both humanitarian and economic in smoothing out jarring price hikes associated with such disasters.

Shenggen Fan, with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., said international policymakers set a goal of reducing by half the number of persons in hunger over the period 1990 to 2015. But today that trend is going in the wrong direction; the number of persons living in hunger is growing.

China and India, two of the largest and fastest growing economies, have experienced food inflation of more than 10% in recent years, he said.

Higher oil prices are affecting the cost of food in two ways, said Fan. It increases the production costs of chemical fertilizers and insecticides, as well as petroleum products that fuel farm equipment and the transportation of bulky agricultural products to processing and market. It also makes expensive biofuels more economically attractive and leads to the diversion of land and crops from food to fuel.

AAAS President Nina V. Fedoroff, a Pennsylvania State University plant biologist, said the 2008 run up in food prices may have been “a tipping point, a harbinger of things to come,” due to the multiple forces pushing the increased demand for food.  

Fedoroff criticized restrictions on genetically modified organisms that have limited their use essentially to feed and fiber crops. “Although we have been modifying agricultural plants and animals for tens of thousands of years, only those that are modified by molecular methods are today called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and subject to unique forms of regulation.”

Fedoroff recently completed a three-year term as the Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State and to the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. She touted the private sector as being best able to meet the food demands of the present and the future, and warned against the price of agricultural romanticism.

“Perhaps the most critical step toward creating an agriculture that can grow to feed 9 billion people while at the same time decreasing its detrimental environmental impact is to rethink agriculture as system that uses energy and water to convert simple compounds into complex food, feed and fiber products—and to optimize that system globally for local environments,” she said.

“The most efficient and productive agriculture today is in the private sector,” Fedoroff continued. “If we’re serious about feeding more people using less water, energy and land, we need to put our development resources where they will yield the best return. It has become fashionable in well-fed, largely urban developed nations to vilify ‘industrial’ agriculture and romanticize the small-holder, independent family farmer, both here and in developing nations.  But it’s not ‘either/or,’ it’s all of the above.

“Only when a farmer can grow enough of sufficient value to sell can he or she advance out of poverty.”