How to feed 10 billion mouths: preparing for 2050

In about 30 years, the world’s population will have increased by nearly half. Expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, the rising number will continue to put pressure on the demand for food. At the same time, there has been an increasing loss of crops and livestock, due to genetic concerns and climatic factors.

These were only a few of the wide-ranging issues raised by UCL Professor Richard Strange, who joined Professor Geoff Simm at the University of Edinburgh on 14 March 2018. The discussion primarily revolved around current challenges, solutions and research projects surrounding the topic of food security.

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life,” Professor Strange defined on the basis of the 1996 FAO Food Summit.

Dr Strange then delved into the challenge of “hidden hunger”, which occurs when the quality of food people eat does not meet their nutrient requirements.

With two billion people suffering from vitamin and mineral deficiencies, it is crucial to ensure global access to essential nutrients: “There are a number of factors preventing individuals from having a proper diet, including high numbers of people, lack of agricultural research, absence of roads, corruption and poor governance,” Strange listed.

After all, a well-balanced nutritional framework consists of a sufficient amount of two types of nutrients: macro and micro. Macronutrients, such as proteins, carbohydrates and fat, supply energy via calories. Macronutrients comprise the vitamins and minerals which enhance the body’s biochemical processes.

Furthermore, the expert suggested genetic modification (GM) as a potential solution, naming Golden Rice as an example. This variety of rice is produced through genetic engineering to biosynthesise beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, in the edible parts of rice.

“Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer’s experiments from 20 years ago were successful, and yet it’s not available. Why? Because of legislation issues and suspicions of GM,” Strange said.

With a background in plant pathology, Professor Strange then described three projects from his own former lab: the green death of cantaloupe melons in Iran, fungal infections of wheat crops, and the blight of chickpea caused by fungus.

The now retired researcher is Editor-in-Chief of Food Security, which publishes literature on the science, sociology and economics of food production and access to nutrition. Launched in 2009, the journal has now expanded to over 1,400 pages a year.

A different angle of food security was explored when the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security Director Geoff Simm took the stage. As an animal breeding specialist, Simm’s research focuses on genetic improvements in livestock.

“A problem as complex as this does not have a solution per se,” Professor Simm admitted, “but at least there are contributions to the production, consumption and innovation ends of the chain.”

Two thirds of the planet’s agricultural land is grassland, and much of that cannot be used for anything else. The other third of the ice-free surfaces are used to grow food for livestock. Through sustainable intensification, food productivity can be increased with less of an environmental impact.

While prospering production can help, it is also important to rebalance the equation around consumption. This can be partly achieved by reducing meat overconsumption and waste in the Global North.

Of course, these solutions can be enhanced through innovations in agri-food systems, promoting healthy quality products, new food sources, robust crops, and improved animal welfare.

At the moment, only five changes can be made to the genome at once. In the context of animal and crop diseases, however, hundreds are involved. New gene editing technologies would therefore be key for locating the gene regions involved in these deficiencies.

“The global challenges related to food security are complex and interconnected,” the expert concluded, imploring a more transdisciplinary approach.

At the moment, only five changes can be made to the genome at once. In the context of animal and crop diseases, however, hundreds are involved. New gene editing technologies would therefore be key for locating the gene regions involved in these deficiencies.

“The global challenges related to food security are complex and interconnected,” the expert concluded, imploring a more transdisciplinary approach.

 

Image credit: University of Edinburgh 

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