Why we must grow more food

THE challenge to feed an extra two billion people on planet earth by 2050 inspired a provocative title for a lecture and debate at the Euroscience Open Forum held in Dublin last week — “Will we starve or will we burn”.

The “will we drown” option was not included, although it more accurately describes the Irish experience of this summer’s climate — and flooding in tropical areas is cited as a result of climate change.

Nevertheless, global hunger must be solved while not increasing the levels of carbon in the atmosphere which are causing climate changes.

Teagasc director Dr Gerry Boyle said we have to face up to the option of researching and using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Ireland and Europe if the challenges are to be overcome. He said GMOs offer the possibility of substantially increased agricultural productivity with substantially decreased usage of chemicals.

Professor Sir John Beddington, chief scientific adviser to the UK government, was the main speaker.

Much of the data to describe the challenges was provided by Professor Rattan Lal, of Ohio State University, who quoted data showing that the world population is increasing by 150 per minute.

Carbon emissions are increasing by 6,150 tonnes per minute, tropical forests (which absorb massive quantities of carbon) are disappearing at the rate of 25 hectares per minute, and urban encroachment on farming land is at the rate of 5.5 hectares per minute.

Soil is degrading at the rate of 10 hectares per minute — 16 people (including 12 children) die of hunger every minute.

The world population is about seven billion. This is likely to increase by a further 2 billion by 2050, mostly in Asia and Africa — and mostly in the cities of Asia and Africa.

There is little that can be done to prevent it. The most likely policy that could slow population growth is education of women in underdeveloped countries.

Not all the present population are adequately fed, and society has accepted in the Millenium Goals of the UN that the numbers of those suffering from hunger must be reduced.

The additional people in cities will have no food reserves. It is estimated that higher commodity prices in the recent past threw an additional 44m people into food poverty, despite a general tendency for the level of food poverty to decline. High prices (however attractive to Irish farmers) also lead to instability and civil unrest.

In addition, there are many people who are not starving but who have ambitions for a “western” lifestyle, including a more varied diet, incorporating more meat. This is one of the factors which led to rising commodity prices in recent years.

So there is a need and a demand for more food. Again quoting Professor Lal, we have to produce as much food in the next 40 years as has been produced on planet earth in the last 8,000 years.

A related issue concerns water: There is a gap of 70% between projected available water supply and projected demand. There is considerable evidence that there has been over-exploitation of underground water and this is not sustainable.

Turning to climate change, let us look at the records of one of the major world re-insurance companies, Munich Re, in relation to natural disasters over the period 1980 to the present. There is no trend in the number of earthquakes. However, there is a clear trend towards increasing floods, storms and other climatic disasters, far above the historical pattern.

Unchecked climate change will have major negative effects on agricultural productivity, with yield declines for the most important crops and price increases for the world’s staples — rice, wheat, maize and soybeans.

At the same time, conventional agriculture contributes to carbon emissions (12 to 14% of the total), coming in particular from our belching bovines and from excessive use of nitrogenous fertilisers.

If food demand increases and dietary shifts occur as projected, annual agricultural emissions may rise further.

Agriculture can do something about its emissions by adopting alternative practices, maintaining fertile soils, restoration of degraded land, improved water and rice management, fertiliser management, land use change and agro-forestry — essentially entailing a shift to more sustainable farming that builds up carbon in the soil and uses less chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

The impacts of climate change will fall disproportionately on developing countries, despite the fact that they contributed least to the causes.

What should be done about these linked problems of climate change and water and food shortages?

There was no agreement at the Euroscience Open Forum on this question, except that there was no silver bullet.

Action would be required on many fronts. Starting with waste — 30% of food produced in undeveloped countries is lost before harvest, due to pests and diseases. The infrastructure (poor roads and no temperature-controlled supply chain) in many of these countries do not allow food to be either exported or imported efficiently.

At the other end of the food chain there is substantial unconsumed food in the fridges and freezers of the wealthy. In addition, these consumers often have excess nutrition and obesity.

Will society interfere with the market in a period of increasing shortage, to transfer this food to those who need it more?

Clearly, there is a need for new varieties and technologies, particularly in undeveloped countries — and these should be applied to the problems associated with climate change. These technologies could include precision farming, sensor technology, and information technology, as well as new varieties, including GMOs.

An example quoted related to the effect of flooding on rice. Flooding in rice growing regions is increasing, as a result of global warming. If a rice plant is under water for more than a few days, it dies.

Science has identified a rice variety, which will survive and thrive after 20 days of flooding. However, it does not taste very well. So efforts are being made to transplant genes from a tasty variety into this one.

A disturbing statistic in relation to technology relates to the decline in the rate of growth in cereal yields in developed countries, despite the considerable investment in science in these countries. In the future, cereal yields are projected to grow by about 1% per annum, compared with 2% in the 1990s, and 4% from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Two theories were suggested by way of explanation. One suggested an upper limit to yields was being approached.

The second is soil degradation. We cannot continue to degrade land and soil. The potential of new elite varieties will not be realised unless there are adequate nutrients.

Sustainable management of soils can be an engine of economic development in rural areas. Soils can be a source of or a sink for greenhouse gasses, depending on land use and management.

Carbon taxes were likely to be effective in reducing the rate of growth of carbon emissions. Tax systems may also need to be used to prevent forest depletion and encourage carbon sequestration.

Development of alternative food sources, such as insects, may be necessary. How about an insect hors d’oeuvre for starters?

Biomass could be recycled from urban centres to rural areas, but heavy metals would have to be abstracted first.

A balance between food and fuel production would have to be achieved. Marginal land cannot produce biofuels, and there is a substantial degradation of soils.

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