Measuring Food Insecurity, Rethinking Agriculture, and Eating Less Meat
News Feb 12, 2010
Science Magazine Podcast, February 12 2010. Excerpt below.
Listen to the audio: http://podcasts.aaas.org/science_podcast/SciencePodcast_100212.mp3
Transcript at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/327/5967/887-b/DC1
This week: a special podcast on food security to go along with the special section in the magazine. We'll hear about how scientists are rethinking agriculture for the 21st Century, measuring food insecurity in the first place, and whether one commonly held strategy of eating less meat leads to greater food security
Host – Robert Frederick - When food prices spiked in 2008, there were food riots in more than 30 countries around the world. As Nina Fedoroff puts it:
Interviewee – Nina Fedoroff I have the growing feeling that this can be a major source of bringing civilizations down. Host – Robert Frederick
"Bringing civilizations down." Fedoroff is a molecular biologist at Penn State University and is also the Science and Technology Adviser to the United States State Department, but her views should not be construed as representing those of the U.S. government. Interviewee – Nina Fedoroff
Most of the decision-makers today live in cities, and, for them, there's no problem. "What is the problem? You know, I go to the grocery store. I get food." We are so disconnected from the Earth's ability to grow food that we take it for granted.
Host – Robert Frederick - Later in the podcast, we'll hear more from Nina Fedoroff, who is lead author of a Perspective on rethinking agriculture. But first, freelancer David Malakoff has this introduction to the special issue. Malakoff edited the news portion of the special section.
News Editor – David Malakoff- This week’s special issue on Food Security tackles a pretty complicated problem: how to make sure everyone in the world has enough to eat. Now, to understand the basics of the food security challenge, it helps to know one number – nine billion – that’s what demographers expect world population will be in just 40 years. That’s about 3 billion more people than we have now. And most of them will live in poorer, less developed nations in Africa and Asia. The problem is that many of those nations are already having trouble feeding their people. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough food. Sometimes, there’s enough food, but people can’t afford to buy it. In any case, the concern is that food insecurity will grow as the population grows. Already, more than two dozen countries are facing a serious risk of food insecurity. And many of them are the same countries in Africa and Asia that are already having trouble feeding their people.
Unfortunately, there is no single solution to reducing that risk. It will require understanding the food implications of global markets, of international trade, of human psychology, even the food traditions that determine what we like to eat. Ensuring food security will also require figuring out how to get bigger harvests. By some estimates, global yields will need to double or even triple over the next 40 years to keep pace with population growth.
In the special issue, we take a close look at how science and technology can help farmers boost yields, particularly in the developing world. We look at efforts to improve soil fertility, even in places where farmers might not have the money to buy synthetic fertilizers. We explore ways of getting more crop from every drop of water, especially in dry regions. We examine new methods of speeding the creation of better seed varieties. And we look at efforts to defend against the pests and diseases that can devastate harvests.
Of course, these efforts aren’t likely to blossom overnight. And researchers still need to figure out how to increase the food supply without seriously damaging the environment or adding to global warming. But, eventually, researchers hope the world can balance food security with other needs and help farmers reap big enough harvests to prevent hunger.
Host – Robert Frederick- During the latter half of the 20th century, the agricultural innovations of the Green Revolution allowed farmers to grow so much more food that the proportion of the world's hungry dropped from half to less than a sixth. And that happened even as the world's population doubled from 3 billion to 6 billion people. In a Perspective in this week's Science, Nina Fedoroff and colleagues argue that we must radically rethink agriculture for the 21st century as the human population continues to grow
Interviewee – Nina Fedoroff- The amount of arable land has not changed in more than half a century and is not likely to in the future. The population experts are predicting that we are going to add somewhere between two and three billion more people to the face of the Earth. As people develop economically, they demand more meat in their diet. That increases the land requirements, because it takes much more grain to make a pound of hamburger than it does to make a pound of you, and so forth. And the climate is warming, which is likely to make the most populous parts of the globe hotter and drier.
Interviewer – Robert Frederick- So, broadly speaking what do you and your coauthors propose is needed to radically rethink agriculture?
Interviewee – Nina Fedoroff- Well, we think that we need to make it easier to use modern science. Science has made enormous increases in agricultural productivity over the past two centuries, but we’ve now made it very, very difficult to use the contemporary molecular biology of the last 30 years by requiring all kinds of regulations. We need to rethink that, and we need to make it easier for the vast number of agriculture, of plant biologists that we now have to actually do things that help farmers. Because it’s anticipated that climate change will not only make some parts of the world hotter and drier, but they will change the whole pattern of pests and diseases. I don’t mean this of people, but of agriculture.
Interviewer – Robert Frederick- What’s needed, then? What barriers could be removed that would help make it easier to use modern science, as you say?
Interviewee – Nina Fedoroff- It’s not easier to use—everybody is using it—but it is difficult to get a crop that has been modified by molecular techniques approved. It generally requires analysis and approval by at least two, and sometimes three, regulatory agencies, depending on the nature of the modification – EPA, USDA, and FDA. And it costs many millions of dollars. Well, in fact, what that has done is driven public sector scientists out of improving crops. The best route that they have is to collaborate with a big multinational company, but, in fact, the difficulty is that many of the crops that traditionally land grant university scientists help farmers with are local crops, local pests. So, for example, the kind of virus that affects papayas in Hawaii is distant enough genetically from the one in the Philippines that you have to do a completely different modification, a new modification using the same principle. So there’s a lot of work to be done. It isn’t necessarily going to be of interest to companies whose objective is to make money, whereas traditionally our scientists in the agricultural research universities have helped local farmers with their problems.