Friday, March 9, 2012

Food Security - A Multidisciplinary Endeavour

I want to use The Daily Plant today to talk about the workshop that I organized last week entitled "Food Security in the 21st Century: Agricultural, health, economic, judicial and political perspectives".

Ensuring a constant supply of nutritious food for the world is probably the largest and most important challenge for the 21st century. Most models have the world's population topping out at 9 billion by 2050. This is three times the population when I was born, and almost nine times that from when my grandparents were born. This enormous increase in population then of course urbanizes land once used for agriculture, and puts enormous strains on our already endangered sources of fresh water.

So how can we provide more food for the world, with less land, less water and less fertilizer?

This is such a critical challenge, that I dare say that with all do respect to the importance of finding solutions to cancer and Alzheimer's disease, that our efforts have to go first and foremost to ensuring the problems of food security. While cancer and Alzheimer's are diseases of the west, food security effects the entire world, and not only Africa.

Lets look at some statistics.  According to the different presentations at the workshop, over 1 billion people, primarily in Africa, suffer from food deficiencies. Another 3 billion have enough food in terms of volume, but sufferer from nutrient deficiencies such as lack of vitamin A, iron, folic acid, and other micro nutrients. These people are found on all continents. Then another 1 billion, especially in North America and Europe, suffer from a new type of food security problem - over consumption. So all in all, about half of the world's population is affected by food security issues.

The take-home message from the workshop was four fold:

  1. Food security problems are not new, and actually have shaped world history. Prof. Gadi Algazi  presented a fascinating talk surveying how food availability has sculpted human interactions from ancient times up to the time of World War 1. As he pointed out, even in the Bible, manna from heaven is an example of food substitution for needs of hunger, and not actually the desired food! So following this thesis, we have to understand that solving problems of food security on a global level is essential for political and social stability. In this vein its important to recognize that the more than millions illegal immigrants reaching the West from Africa should not be considered "work immigrants", but rather"food immigrants".
  2. Food security solutions must take into account the local cultural, legal and economic practices. Policy decisions relating to food security must be formulated together with the local stake holders, and not benevolently, but often mistakenly, imposed. Macro-economic factors can trump issues such as production so that hunger results not from a lack of production, but rather a lack of supply. For example Yuv√© Guluma, who has worked form many agencies in Arica, pointed out while Niger actually produces a fair amount of crops, most of these are sold to neighboring Nigeria, which has the economic power to buy them. This then leads to a lack of food availability and famine in Niger. Speculating forward, what would happen if a powerful country such as China would buy and divert Brazil's produce normally marketed to Europe?
  3. Research and development in plant genetics must begin today. The economic models presented by Prof. Phil Pardey showed quite clearly that money invested into basic R&D in plant genetics provides a massive return, but this is only felt decades forward. Adoption of new technologies, such as in the past hybrid corn, or now GMO crops, usually takes about 15 years once marketing begins. This coupled with the lag between R&D and the beginning of marketing means that any research started today will only be felt decades from now, which is unfortunately beyond the thinking ability if most politicians.
  4. GMO technology must be improved and  adopted by the world. Prof. Wilhelm Gruissem clearly stated that the adoption of GMO crops may be considered a moral imperative, as the gains, such as reduced pesticides, reduced water contamination and increased yields, greatly outstrip any perceived danger, which until now is primarily emotional (and this will be the subject of an additional blog piece). As production yields have plateaued for most of the world's major crops, any further advances which will allow higher yield on less space will need to juxtapose two approaches. One the one hand we have to explore and utilize the vast genetic biodiversity that has been ignored by monoculture. On the other hand, GMO technology will able us to pinpoint and adopt the critical genes identified through the study of diversity, while minimizing the introduction of deleterious traits, which often results in classic breeding programs. This will also greatly increase the research to market timeline.
The concerted interdisciplinary collaboration between plant scientists, policy experts, economists and legal experts has the potential to provide long-term solutions to the problems of food security. The president of Tel Aviv University called for the founding of such an interdisciplinary food security center at Tel Aviv University.

(All lectures from the conference ware on line on YouTube.)

No comments:

Post a Comment