How to feed the future

A man and his animals plowing his land in Qursaya Island, a very small rural island in the middle of the Nile in the area between Giza and Maadi, one of the biggest and the most urban suburbs in Cairo
Time to phase out “obsolete technology”? (Marwa Morgan)

Scientists anticipate there will be nine billion people in the world to feed by 2050. As this number rises, so will the earth’s temperature, which is expected to increase four degrees Celsius by the end of the century, wreaking havoc on the world’s food production.

Agriculturalists, scientists, businessmen, lobbyists and policymakers convened in London’s Chatham House this week to debate how to feed the planet’s growing population without degrading the earth’s resources - if such a thing is even possible. 

Is food shortage a problem?

Some attendees argued that current levels of food production - if better managed - could accommodate everyone. They acknowledge that many people around the world are already going hungry, but contend this is not an issue of food shortage. Instead, they point out that vast quantities of edible produce are used for animal feed or biofuel production, or are allowed to spoil in storage or otherwise go to waste.  

The President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Kanayo Nwanze, told a roundtable of journalists in London, “There is enough food in the world to feed every man, woman and child. Yet one-third of the food that is produced goes to waste. Fifty-seven per cent of food produced is not used for consumption. There is enough food to feed every mouth. The issue is access to food.”

In many ways, food availability and access depends on consumption patterns. Diets containing a lot of meat are notoriously demanding of resources, with large amounts of grains and farmlands dedicated to raising livestock rather than growing food crops. One speaker at Chatham House went so far as to call cows and sheep “inefficient, obsolete technologies” for converting feed into meat.

Yet when communities grow richer, they tend to eat more meat. China, in particular, is using more grain and soya for feedstuffs to meet the population’s growing demand for meat and dairy products.

Eat your vegetables

Of course, people could just eat less meat.

The Sustainable Consumption Institute at Manchester University has published a study of the kinds of diets required for the UK to meet its share of the world’s goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius by 2100.

They found that the only diets approaching a sufficient reduction in greenhouse gas emissions entail doubling the amount of vegetables currently eaten in the UK while also severely cutting meat consumption.

Lead author Alice Bows told IRIN that more than gentle persuasion would be required to get people to make this kind of change.

“The two-degree target is so difficult to do in terms of reduction of emissions that you won’t be able to do it just by nudging people in the right direction. You would need whole suites of policies, from production to consumption, and that would have to involve regulation and standards as well.”

One could, in theory, persuade people to become vegetarians, eliminate food loss and waste, or redistribute existing foods, but each of these options faces significant obstacles. In the real world, other speakers argued, sustainable intensification of agriculture would be more effective and easier to achieve.

Sustainable intensification

Advocates of sustainably intensifying agriculture want to tackle the problem through the application of science - for example, by breeding livestock that are more efficient at converting resources into meat or dairy. 

There are already chickens that can grow to 1.8kg in weight on 2.9kg of feed - a conversion ratio of 1.6 - where it once would have taken 7.2kg to produce the same-sized bird. Scientists expect to reduce the conversion ratio to 1.2 within the next few years. 

''The overall message was that there is no silver bullet, no one solution to the problem of feeding the world in the future''

Other scientists have taken things further, attempting to phase out the “obsolete technology” of farm animals altogether in favour of growing meat in laboratories using muscle stem cells. 

A team in the Netherlands has produced enough of this “meat” to make hamburgers a couple of centimetres in diameter. They say their product requires only a fraction of the land, water and energy needed to produce conventional meat. The remaining questions are how much the process would cost and whether people could be persuaded to eat it. 

But not all the ideas presented were high-tech, and some could even be applied to small-scale farms. Zero tillage could improve yields and reduce inputs. Targeted “dosing” of fertilizer for individual plants uses less fertilizer than treating whole fields, reducing costs, energy use and environmental damage. Treating seeds with pesticides rather than spraying entire crops is likewise more efficient.

Agricultural specialists are also working on producing better plant varieties, including those that are more drought-resistant, salt-tolerant or nutritious. Although some of these varieties are coming out of big agribusinesses and are being developed for profit, others are the work of public research institutions, both in the developed and the developing worlds.

Some of these improvements can be achieved through conventional breeding, without genetic modification, although admittedly not all. 

Gordon Conway of Imperial College London told IRIN genetic modification would be necessary for what he views as the most important improvement of all: crops designed to use less fertilizer.

“Inorganic fertilizer is increasingly expensive. It also produces greenhouse gases. But manure also produces greenhouse gases. So if we are going to produce more food into the future, we have to find ways of taking nitrogen from the atmosphere by the plants themselves, and for them to ‘fix’ the nitrogen and use what they need, and that’s the holy grail,” he said. “I can’t believe you can do that by selective breeding. You are going to have to find a way of getting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the roots of cereals… and that will be quite complicated genetically, and it will take maybe 20 years before we can do it.”

The overall message was that there is no silver bullet, no one solution to the problem of feeding the world in the future. Rather, it will take a mix of ideas - some traditional, some futuristic, some large-scale, some small-scale - as well as research, the dissemination of knowledge, and the development of the supply chains and financing institutions to allow all farmers to run their businesses as profitably and productively as possible.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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