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Global food security – how can we feed the nine billion?

Global food security – how can we feed the nine billion?

By the year 2050, the world’s population is predicted to have risen from 6.8 billion to 9 billion. Feeding them all, without damaging the environment or contributing to climate change, is acknowledged to be one of the major challenges facing world governments.

Last month, the problem of ‘Feeding the Nine Billion’ was explored at a session at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen. A panel of experts explored the issues surrounding global food demand from four different perspectives – nutrition, livestock, resource management, and economics.

Professor Peter Morgan, Vice-President of Aberdeen University and the Director of the Rowett Institute, explained, that in the past, the problem had been one of food distribution. Now, it is about how to produce more food as well as distribute it, without harming the environment. Thirteen percent of the world’s population are classified as hungry, with 3.5 million children dying each year from malnutrition. More than 1.5 billion people across the globe suffer from iron deficiency due to lack of nutrition. In the UK, 15% of the population are classed as poor with nearly 30% of those not having enough to eat and almost 40% worried about not having enough money to pay for food. At the same time, obesity is a growing problem. Professor Morgan said this was not just in the developed world but also in countries such as India where under nutrition and obesity go side by side. The challenge is to produce 70% more food while maintaining nutritional quality, embracing the concept of sustainability and radically changing food choice and customer behaviour. He said it was a global rather than a national problem and therefore governments and the food industry needed to take action on a global level.

The livestock perspective was given by Professor Julia Fitzpatrick, the Scientific Director of the Moredun Research Institute, which promotes animal health and welfare through research into infectious diseases of farmed livestock. She said the main increase in food demand was expected to be for milk, dairy and meat products, especially from countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. Policies, she said, should focus on producing optimally-fed, biologically-efficient farm animals and improving their breeding. This would include active policies to minimise disease, such as improving vaccinations, diagnostic tests and disease control to increase biological efficiency and reduce methane emissions. She argued that the key to global food security was rural development and new technologies to provide a modern solution for developing countries.

Resource management and crop production were discussed by Professor David Hopkins from Heriot Watt University’s Life Sciences department. He pointed out that over the past hundred years, wheat yields had been vastly improved by the addition of nutrients, fertilisers and pesticides, and the introduction of new crop varieties. Changed land management techniques, such as fallowing, had also contributed to increasing wheat production which is now around 8–9 tonnes per hectare. But, he argued, this was still not enough to meet demand. There was no single ‘silver bullet’ that could solve the problem – sustainable wheat production would have to be developed through a wider range of technologies.

From an economic perspective, Dr Cesar Revoredo, a senior food marketing economist from the Scottish Agricultural College, said food security hinged on availability, accessibility, affordability, utilisation and stability.  Feeding nine billion people was closely linked to economic development, poverty, hunger and health problems. It would require a range of policy and investment reforms, education, agricultural technology research, and better management of natural resources.

At the session, one of the audience members asked whether the widespread use of genetically modified (GM) foods was inevitable given the pressures to increase sustainable food production without contributing to climate change. In a quick straw poll, only two members of the 100+ audience indicated they were against GM, with one of those saying it pointed to a ‘Frankenstein’ future. Professor Hopkins pointed out that GM was already part of the solution world-wide – it was only in Europe that people had a problem with it. The panel’s view was that when people are hungry enough, GM will become accepted alongside technologies such as cloning and artificial meats. They all agreed on the need for as many novel technological solutions as possible, with GM being just one of the options in the sustainable food ‘toolbox’.

The contentious issue of population control was also raised by the audience. The experts were against this idea, with Professor Fitzpatrick saying that the predicted increase in the Earth’s temperature was likely to lead to catastrophic famines in some areas of the world. This in itself would lead to population self-regulation.

Other suggestions from the panel included reducing meat consumption from 20% of calorie intake to 5%, although this would not in itself solve the problem. Water shortages were also a key consideration. Agriculture already takes up around 60 – 70% of the world’s useable water, therefore making desalination technologies – the process of removing salt from seawater - vital to increase the water available for farming.

The session ended with a question from the audience on whether organic farming should be stopped as it uses more natural resources and is therefore not sustainable. Professor Fitzpatrick agreed that organic farming was contrary to sustainable production however, she did not advocate stopping organic farming entirely.

The Global Food Security (GFS) programme involves the main public funders of food-related research and has recently published two initial reports on public views and public attitudes.  The partners will be meeting on 9 November to consider these reports and what the GFS programme could do in future, including the possibility of further public dialogue.  Sciencewise is providing support to the GFS in its current work and future plans.

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