How to feed a hungry world

This week, the G20 Agriculture Ministers gathered for their first-ever meeting to discuss potential measures to address price volatility and record high food prices. The key to any long-term solution is acknowledging that we need to empower the very people whose lives are most affected by food shortages. Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people get their food and income by farming small plots of land. The potential of small farmers for getting us out of this and future food crises cannot be overstated.

Today, we find that millions of lives depend upon the extent to which agricultural science can keep pace with the growing global population, changing climate, and shrinking environmental resources — and the extent to which this science is available to millions of the world’s poorest farmers.


Few people will argue with the idea that we need to grow more food. World economic and agricultural leaders have projected that the human population will surpass 9 billion by 2050, and 10 billion by the turn of the century. And they have forecast that we must double or even triple food production to meet demand.

Yet, already 40 percent of the earth is farmed (an area the size of South America). The amount of arable land is limited and what is left is being lost to urbanization, water shortages, erosion, and environmental degradation. Farmers are so pressed for space in many parts of the world that much of the land now being farmed is marginal, such as the steep hills of Ecuador. Overuse of pesticides sickens farmers and continuous cultivation of the same land drains it of nutrients.

So how will we keep up? How will we feed the world without destroying it?

My husband Raoul Adamchak and I often discuss this question. Raoul has been an organic farmer for thirty years, and I’m a plant geneticist. You may think that a geneticist and an organic farmer represent polar opposites. But we both have the same goal: an ecologically based system of agriculture that is able to grow more food, largely on existing farmland.

When Raoul and I wrote “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food,” our intention was to give readers a better understanding of how geneticists and organic farmers address our big challenge–creating a healthy and productive agricultural system–and how what we do can be complementary.

We believe that the discussions about agriculture must be framed in the context of the environmental, economic, and social impacts of farming–the three pillars of sustainable agriculture. Rather than focusing on how a seed variety was developed, we must ask what most enhances local food security and can provide safe, abundant and nutritious food. We must ask if rural communities can thrive and if farmers can make a profit. We must be sure that consumers can afford the food. And we must minimize environmental degradation.

Both organic farming and biotechnology have a seat at this table. Organic farming began as a response to the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, and relies on integrated management to control pests and disease. And while organic production practices can be an important component of sustainable agriculture, they cannot address every constraint faced by farmers, including some diseases and pests, challenges posed by climate change, and the need for adequate nutrition.

This is not to say that genetic engineering is always the most appropriate technology, but there are times when it can help rapidly solve major problems.

Rice is a good example. It is a daily source of food and calories for more than half the worlds’ people. Yet dependence on rice may come with a price, as the grain is deficient in vitamin A. Many of those who rely on rice are also vitamin A deficient. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. It also impairs immune system function and increases the risk of death from certain childhood diseases.

Plant breeders are using biotechnology to develop a new rice variety called Golden Rice, a unique type of rice that contains beta carotene, a source of vitamin A. Because rice contains negligible amounts of beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A, genetic modification is required to boost micronutrient levels. Crop breeders and farmers are now working together to develop varieties of Golden Rice appropriate to different growing conditions, with the intention of making these golden grains available to help meet urgent nutrition needs for many of the world’s poor.

As we address global issues of food and nutrition security we need everyone at the table. This includes breeders, organic farmers, seed companies, charities, geneticists, consumers. We need more support for agricultural research that is responsive to the unique needs of poor small-holder farmers. And we need the G20 to invest in agricultural development in the least developed countries, give farmers the freedom of technology choice, and explore options for international governance of food markets.

This post was first published on Reuter’s blog.

Comments

  1. #1 prosperdan
    December 12, 2011
  2. #2 Ann Stapleton
    October 16, 2011

    I used the ration’s video in a public talk I gave in Wilmington this week (along with audience-generated word clouds for the questions). They loved the clip, thank you for making it!

  3. #3 Pellet mill manufacturer
    October 3, 2011

    This is really a great information.I think as a human being we all have responsibility towards society as well.Your post is awesome and we must read it.

  4. #4 MacTurk
    June 29, 2011

    The alternative hypothesis is the “Real Murkans”(TM) are genetically designed to be resistant to education or any other mind-expanding mechanism.

  5. #5 MacTurk
    June 29, 2011

    And I could say the same, but I will nevertheless try. Please present some evidence, because so far, you have presented none.

    I have done so. Do please stop issuing non-sequitors and look at, for an example, the decline in family size in Tunisia over the last thirty years.

    And compared to all the other panic stricken and immoral options put forward so far, education is both feasible and low input. Time we have, and money for education is not a wasteful input, and we have lots of it too.

    War now, that is both highly expensive and wasteful. How much is the USA spending in Afghanistan alone? Two milliard of dollars per week, is it? Just think how much that would buy in terms of teacher training and education.

    Regarding your statement that education is,”…in some of the more backward cultures, impossible.”, I would have to agree that, in the case of the USA, this is true.

    The seemingly unstoppable rise of Michelle Bachmann, and the rest of her reality challenged cohort, is evidence that the US education system is an utter failure.

  6. #6 Mike Bendzela
    June 29, 2011

    MacTurk, your post barely warrants a response except to comment on this:

    “How is educating all these girls going to be a “recipe for doom”? Education is a spectacularly low-input way to improve human wellbeing and the environment at the same time.”

    Because it is not “low-input.” It is expensive and time-consuming and, in some of the more backward cultures, impossible.

  7. #7 MacTurk
    June 29, 2011

    Richard(no 8) wrote “But can you really project what our planet is going to look like 500 years, 1,000 years, or 5,000 years from now?” No, but neither can you. What anyone who studies history CAN say is that humans have an amazing ability to develop fixes. That’s the thing about technology, you cannot predict how it will go.

    He also wrote “Face it, our sun will burn out in about 9 billion years and it will all be over.” Mmmmm, should we all hold our breath, then?

    A Zores(no 9), thank you for proving that you of all people should never be in any position of power. What a complacent and self-righteous prig you are. And you would be the judge of who shall live, and who shall die? I do not think so.

    Oh, and my deeply blinkered and virulently anti-American friend, a little informatory note; I am neither a citizen nor a resident of the USA, so none of your outright nastiness fits me at all.

    Prometheus(no 10), seconded.

    Mike Bendzela(12), if you do not know, best be silent. The DIRECT and CAUSAL link between increased years of female education and decline in number of children per fertile female is undisputed. And I repeat, all you need to do is to study demographics a little.

    The statement that “In fact, if the fate of the world depends on girls from all over-populated countries receiving a University education, that what you offer as a solution is actually a recipe for doom.” is deeply silly.

    Where did you develop this incoherent drivel? I said, and it is proven, that the way to reduce birth rates is to educate girls. How is educating all these girls going to be a “recipe for doom”? Education is a spectacularly low-input way to improve human wellbeing and the environment at the same time. And I also have to point out, again, that the extinction of the human race is NOT coterminous with the destruction of the planet. It will keep turning merrily on its axis, with or without us.

    Derisive? Moi? Very definitely, when it comes to stupidity, or linear extrapolation of current trends – without acknowledging that such trends involve human beings and are therefore subject to multi-factorial influences.

    And yes, stop panicking, because if you are panicking, it means that you are NOT thinking. This is hardly rocket science.

    In terms of world population, China’s will soon start dropping, due to their one child policy, and the resultant skewed sex ratio. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Chinese men to find a wife, because there are not enough girls. The same issue of skewed sex ratios is a huge issue in India, and again this will result in a decline in fertility.

    So yes, please stop panicking. Use the brain that evolution gave you.

  8. #8 Mike Bendzela
    June 28, 2011

    MacTurk, your derisive tone is unacceptable.

    On this point:

    Quote: “Stop panicking!

    If you want to slow or stop population growth, the answer is both proven and relatively simple; focus on female education. If girls are educated to University level, the effect on populations is immense.”

    Assuming your glib remedy is true: that is a very big “if.”

    In fact, if the fate of the world depends on girls from all over-populated countries receiving a University education, that what you offer as a solution is actually a recipe for doom.

    I don’t have the answer to the question myself.

  9. #9 Mike Bendzela
    June 28, 2011

    I’m continually amazed at the number of seemingly reasonable (and liberal) people who apologize for a system as intellectually bankrupt as “organic” farming. Until recently, I was one of those who bought into the idea because it seemed “to make sense.” But as soon as I started investigating “organic” certification for a new farm that I’m part of, the scales began to fall from my eyes.

    I’m afraid that the misinformation embedded in the term “organic” is so firmly entrenched that arguing it out of existence is no longer possible. For example, look at this passage from the University of Iowa’s website [for ease of reading I'm omitting links]:

    “Organic agriculture is the oldest form of agriculture on earth. Farming without the use of petroleum-based chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides) was the sole option for farmers until post-World War II. The war brought with it technologies that were useful for agricultural production…Instead of using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic farmers utilize crop rotations, cover crops, and natural-based products to maintain or enhance soil fertility. These farmers rely on biological, cultural and physical methods to limit pest expansion….etc.”

    This passage is so wrong it’s hard to know where to begin to critique it.

    The “oldest form of agriculture” is pre-industrial subsistence farming, not “organic” farming. “Organic” farming is completely reliant on industrial technologies and “petroleum-based chemicals.” There would be no “organic” farms without tractors, chainsaws, mowers, and the like. In a place like Maine (where I live) “organic” farmers must have an abundance of plastics, aluminum, and heating oil to maintain greenhouses, or there would not be a single pepper or eggplant to be found within the state borders.

    The paragraph gives the impression that “organic” farmers don’t use “pesticides.” But in order to work at an “organic” farm (for four summers, before I started a farm with three others), I had to be certified as a pesticides applicator.

    “Huh?” you say.

    The WPS (Worker Protection Standards) and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is the same for the application of “organic” toxins copper sulfate and pyrethrum as it is for relatively-benign Captan and Sevin.

    Being trained to apply “organic” pesticides caused a cognitive dissonance that was a bit much for me to bear. I realized I was part of a system that is full of howling absurdities. I now see “Organic” as a term that obfuscates and confuses. A good organic chemical like Captan is declared “non-organic,” but an inorganic compound, copper sulfate, that can cause organ damage is anointed “organic.” A perfectly natural, locally-grown organic toxin like tobacco dust is declared “non-organic,” but an expensive, imported, bee-killing plant extract, pyrethrum, is “organic.” Go figure.

    As for “fertilizers”: “Organic” farms import tons of stuff. Rock phosphate, magnesium lime, and greensand have to be mined and trucked to the site. OK, so “organic” farms don’t use natural-gas-based nitrogen, but so what? What’s the difference between using fossil fuels to make nitrogen and burning fossil fuels to collect, ship, stockpile, and turn the materials for compost piles? I don’t have the answer as that would require considerable math skills that I don’t have.

    On this quote from the current article:

    “Both organic farming and biotechnology have a seat at this table. Organic farming began as a response to the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, and relies on integrated management to control pests and disease. And while organic production practices can be an important component of sustainable agriculture, they cannot address every constraint faced by farmers, including some diseases and pests, challenges posed by climate change, and the need for adequate nutrition.”

    I don’t believe this. “Organic” farmers don’t want a seat at your table, Pamela. They want to overturn it. Consider this screed, “Local and Organic Food and Farming: The Gold Standard”:

    “But does so-called local farming, utilizing toxic pesticides, GMO seeds and feed, chemical fertilizers, and animal drugs mean that the food is safe and sustainable? Obviously not. We believe that there shouldn’t have to be a choice between local and safe organic; but rather that consumers should look for food that is not only local or regionally produced, but food that is also organic and therefore safe and sustainable. Local and chemical, or local using GMO seeds and feed, is nothing more than greenwashing.”

    I’m beginning to think that “sustainability” is the supreme oxymoron of the twenty-first century. The term is used frequently, and we all think we know what it means, but upon closer inspection, the concept vanishes in a mist.

    It is undeniably true that farming–conventional, organic, whatever you want to call it–does three things simultaneously:

    1. It takes over land.
    2. It draws down non-renewable resources.
    3. It grows populations.

    “Farming” looks to me to be the very definition of “un-sustainability.” Until we develop a form of farming that manages to address all three issues, this discussion of “organic” versus “chemical,” “natural” versus “GMO,” will have been a tragic waste of time.

  10. #10 Prometheus
    June 28, 2011

    “I’m not fat, I don’t smoke, I’ve never owned a car, don’t and won’t have kids, I eat locally produced food including my own and don’t buy things I don’t need – the computer I’m using is several years old.”

    Gosh, you sound wonderful. How is it possible to accomplish so many things on the small space available atop your pedestal.

  11. #11 A Zores
    June 28, 2011

    “I am making a wild guess here, but you are probably NOT volunteering for the cull, are you?”

    Of course not, chump. I’m not fat, I don’t smoke, I’ve never owned a car, don’t and won’t have kids, I eat locally produced food including my own and don’t buy things I don’t need – the computer I’m using is several years old. My consumption of resources is amongst the least of individuals in rich nations. The fat, lazy, wasteful SUV-driving assholes can and should be the first to go, prevented from eating any more hamburgers made from cows in burnt down Brazilian rain forests.

    As for who decides, why not me? At least my list of who has to give up is based on how an individual used natural resources, not political or racial lines. I’d be a hell of a lot more impartial than a corporation or government looking out for it’s own selfish ends.

    “It is safe to say that I do not want to live in your nasty reality. Who decides who wil live, and who will die? You?”

    You’re an ignorant yank who has been reaping the benefits of unfair trading practices, such as the destruction of Haitian farming for US corporate benefit, or the invasion of several countries (Iran, Afghanistan to get to Khazak oil, and now Libya) to control and steal oil for a single nation’s use. I wouldn’t put it past you to “think” $1/gallon gas is still possible. The US has spent the last 200 years using brute force for selfish gain, from slavery to unfair trade. The US would be the worst choices of who decides.

    As for “my world” as you feebly put it, you’re already living in it. If nothing is done, starvation and war will eventually happen. I’m already thinking, the problem is you’re too ignorant to know you’re ignorant, too ignorant to bother reading a book or two to learn something.

  12. #12 Richard
    June 27, 2011

    All good and lively comments, if not somewhat depressing in the fact that overpopulation is going to have to be dealt with. Is the U.S. ready to go the way of China, with its “one child” policy? Will oil eventually run out and our world will take a drastic change as a consequence? Yes. Will there eventually come a time that we face “Solent Green” consequences of what amounts to simply exhausting all of our natural resources? Yes. And then there’s MacTurk who is optimistic about the future and says quit whining and put your brains to work. Bravo. But can you really project what our planet is going to look like 500 years, 1,000 years, or 5,000 years from now? Kinda hard to really be upbeat that all will be warm and fuzzy during this time, unless we experience some giant technological breakthroughs like those featured in “Star Trek,” (I always loved the ability to just have food “materalize” out of nowhere moments after placing your order). Face it, our sun will burn out in about 9 billion years and it will all be over. But, facts be faced, it will become a frenzied rat race when apples are $10 each, and meat on the table will just be a memory. No, we can keep Mankind plugging along for a few more millenium, but God help us when we start running short on supplies and there is nothing to restock. (Of course, until then, we can keep ourselves distracted by performing mental calisthenics in battles of oneupmanship over the Internet to keep us entertained.)

  13. #13 Craig
    June 27, 2011

    I’ve been hearing about plans for golden rice, for seemingly a decade. It would be great to read a blog on the current development status and/or imposing issues genetic developers are facing.

  14. #14 Prometheus
    June 27, 2011

    “Organic farming began as a response to the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, and relies on integrated management to control pests and disease.”

    Nope. You know better Pam.

    Organic farming began as a method of infusing cosmic energy into produce in order to allow the diner to astrally project and access the Akashic Record.

    It was further popularized based on assumptions of farm-as-organism and composting from a British civil servant’s misinterpretation of Puja rituals, cow dung and Hindu subsistence culture in general.

    J. I. Rodale carefully filtered flapdoodle from these propositions in his publications while introducing the popular (and baseless) concept of “vitalism”. At this point the half baked atavism of evil “synthetic” fertilizers and pesticides is reintroduced in place of half baked metaphysics.

    Please understand that I come from a tradition of large scale farming that pre-dates the industrial revolution. My family has practiced and empirically studied organic gardening in many variations for a century.

    It’s general yield is not greater.

    It’s micro-nutrient content is not superior.

    It’s toxicity levels are often higher.

    It is disturbingly vulnerable to failures.

    It addresses water/soil/energy depletion and erosion issues but not more effectively than management strategies available to science based farming.

    Ultimately the advantage of Organic Farming is that science based industrial farming is very culture, market and transport dependent.

    Organic farming is the best alternative in a third world subsistence context with limited infrastructure and the only redundancy in the first world in the event of a massive failure of global trade culture.

    Yes is it important, but it is not important for the reasons people assert and we are just dumb lucky that it is expanding as an aspect of the crank aesthetics of a generation with neither critical thinking skills nor intellectual curiosity.

    This being said, you do tend to put me in the position of congratulating you even if I would rather not.

    You defend Organic Farming although the “Organics” consumer is who hands you flak for your genetic work. Our culture has reached a point, yet again, where you can distinguish between a pseudo-intellectual and an intellectual with relative ease.

    The true intellectual is always the one regarded by the greater society as being in league with Satan.

    As for the peanut gallery…yes there are too many bloody mouths in the world and you get to bitch about that in your suicide note or the check register of your vasectomy, otherwise your Co2 expelling orifices are indistinguishable and you can put a cork in all of them.

  15. #15 MacTurk
    June 27, 2011

    Oh Dog, four posts, and the last three all variations on the theme of “We’re doomed! Doomed I tell you!”

    To all of the folk who are busy going “Waily waily, woe is us, there’s too many of us”, etc, boringly etc,, do stop the linear thinking.

    Use that which is our best tool bequathed by evolution; our brains and imagination.

    Look at it this way; what would be the impact on Spain and Portugal of just one large ice berg towed to Cadiz? What would be the effect on the entire planet of one large asteroid brought into local orbit?

    Stop panicking!

    If you want to slow or stop population growth, the answer is both proven and relatively simple; focus on female education. If girls are educated to University level, the effect on populations is immense. Check-out family size in Tunisia over the last 20-30 years. The idea that population will simply expand to consume any increased food supply is silly, because it ignores all the other factors which influence demography.

    A Zores(no 2) wrote, variously “Here’s an easier way to feed the world: have fewer mouths. There are already too many people on the Earth. We can either gently cull the herd voluntarily and reduce the number of mouths to feed….” I am making a wild guess here, but you are probably NOT volunteering for the cull, are you?

    And then we had this; “Only the delusional will whine, “You’re talking about mass murder/genocide/abortion/forced birth control/whatever!” Hundreds of millions and even billions of people will die within the next hundred years, it’s just a matter of how they die. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet with finite resources. We all know it’s true, but people are afraid to say it or afraid to face reality.”

    It is safe to say that I do not want to live in your nasty reality. Who decides who wil live, and who will die? You?

    This is best described as pessimistic and nasty nonsense.

    Robin Welch(no 3) wrote “The earth has cancer and the cancer is us. It breaks my heart. If we don’t do something about the population problem the result will be more future human suffering AND total destruction of the planet.”

    This is best described as emotive nonsense. Still your breaking heart, and deploy your brain. First, “..total destruction of the planet.” is NOT on the agenda, and never was. AT WORST, we may destroy ourselves; the Earth will keep turning.

    Second, while there is a population issue, the rate of increase is slowing down all over the planet, due to urbanisation, and the afore-mentioned increase in female education.

    Kindly deploy your brain(s) to find new options.

  16. #16 Richard Eis
    June 26, 2011

    You also need people who really know soil management with county level planning. You can’t really leave it up to individual farmers because how and where they farm effects other things. Removing trees for cropland can lead to flooded cities for instance.

    That being said, if you increase the food, the population will increase, as has always happened in the past. You are simply kicking the can down the road and actually creating a larger problem for later. A problem that gets harder to fix and causes pain to more people. The green revolution may go down as one of the greatest mistakes of our civilisation.

    Cheap condoms, equality, care for the sick and elderly and good soil practices. All together or nothing. Oh and keep big business out of it.

  17. #17 Robin Welch
    June 26, 2011

    The earth has cancer and the cancer is us. It breaks my heart. If we don’t do something about the population problem the result will be more future human suffering AND total destruction of the planet. Right wing religionists are always invoking morality but I have never once heard one of them speak of our moral obligation to future humans other than the ones already conceived.

  18. #18 A Zores
    June 26, 2011

    Here’s an easier way to feed the world: have fewer mouths. There are already too many people on the Earth.

    Most food production uses chemical fertilizers made from oil, which is already in decline. We can either gently cull the herd voluntarily and reduce the number of mouths to feed, or nature will viciously do it for us when we run out of food, land and oil followed by famine and war.

    Only the delusional will whine, “You’re talking about mass murder/genocide/abortion/forced birth control/whatever!” Hundreds of millions and even billions of people will die within the next hundred years, it’s just a matter of how they die.

    You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet with finite resources. We all know it’s true, but people are afraid to say it or afraid to face reality.

  19. #19 Matthew Platte
    June 25, 2011

    What I’d really like: a recipe book for what, exactly, to do with my forty acres of Kansas wheatland. Until that resource exists, I and my neighbors will stand here in the corner of the room admiring the freshly-painted floor and wondering just how the heck we’re gonna get back outside.

    /just sayin’