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Can the World feed 11 billion people?

Thomas Malthus, a priest in a small town of England in 1798, was in deep thoughts. He recalled baptism and funeral services he conducted. The birth rate was higher than the mortality rate. It should be the case that the population has been increasing rapidly.

Malthus envisioned that in order to feed this growing population, they would need more foods, and the world cannot grow that amount of food to feed all these people. Although Malthus’ vision has drawn attention around the world, it did not take place.

After two hundred years, Professor Chris Barrett from Cornell University has given a speech in the last April at the United Nations. Barrett has warned all countries that the agricultural areas and water sources have become inadequate, adding that the biggest challenge of 21th century will be to find resources to feed the world population and to realize food safety.

“The risk that food safety cannot be solved means an existential crisis for all countries and societies,” he said. Today, there are around 7.7 billion people in the world. At the end of 21th century, billions of people will be added to this population. The United Nations predicts that the world’s population will reach 11 billion by 2100. Does our planet have enough resources to feed 11 billion people?

‘Green Revolution’
Andy Jarvis has been working on food safety in Colombia for years. Right after graduation (eighteen years ago), he moved to Colombia while the country has been rocked with violent clashes between security forces and drug cartels. When Andy summarized his impression about the country and his first days in the country, he said “You faced with incredible contrast. You are in a perfect nature. But I saw two bomb attacks and street clashes in the country in my first days.”

He still lives in Cali, a Colombian city. He works on agricultural policies at the International Tropical Agricultural Center (CIAT). CIAT was founded in the 1960s. In that time, there had been concerns that the agricultural output of the country would not meet the increasing population.

Andy Jarvis said that the agricultural technologies of the 1960s were very backward when compared to today’s technologies. “In many parts of the world, agricultural productivity was low. Pests and plant diseases were very serious problems. A series of books written in those years emphasized that there was a limit to the population the planet could feed,” Jarvis noted.

In those years, scientists, foundations, and countries have united their forces to seek solutions in order to feed people. There was one priority: to increase crop yield. There had been researches to maximize the agricultural product produced on one hectare of land. Scientists focused on agricultural products such as wheat and rice, and they realized projects to develop plants that can produce more kernels.

In this way, it would be possible to get more efficiency in a piece of land. Many different grain type has been planted, and it was examined which one could be more efficient. Later on, different types had been mixed. The most fertile plants were paired with each other. It was aimed to make the new generation plants more durable and efficient.

All these studies were named as “green revolution.”

Andy Jarvis emphasized that “green revolution” was larger than growing bigger kernels. “One of the biggest innovations that the green revolution brought was that plants were able to carry more kernels on themselves. Although number of kernels has increase, plants did not fidget, and the crops were not damaged,” he said.

Crops that were planted in one hectare within ten years have doubled crops. Norman Borlaug – one of the green revolution researches – was awarded with Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 because of his researches.

“The End of Green Revolution?”
However, Andy Jarvis said that the world needs another revolution. “The population has been increasing rapidly. “We don’t have the capacity to produce enough food to feed 11 billion people in existing agricultural land,” he said.

Another challenge is climate change. Agricultural yields are increasingly fluctuating due to the effects of climate change. Jarvis believes that the global food supply chain has been very fragile: “If Russia was hit with heat wave, we witness dramatic increases in the price of wheat and barley. This increase is reflected on bread prices.”

In 2008, droughts in grain exporting countries, high oil prices, and rising agricultural input costs caused a food crisis worldwide. Between 2006 and 2008, the global rice price increased 217 percent while the wheat price increased 136 percent. This shock in agricultural product prices paves the way for major street demonstrations in developing countries in Africa and Asia. Tens of thousands of protesters protested rising food prices in several countries, including Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mauritania, Uzbekistan, and Bangladesh.

“A hole in bucket’s bottom”
Jane Ambuko from Botany and Crop Protection Program at Nairobi University of Kenya has been dealing with agriculture from his early ages. Ambuko realized serious problem that both his family and other farmers experienced: “We plant corn and irrigated it… We harvest all together. Since we had no place to store corn, we had to sell it. All farmers in Kenya did the same. We all sold our crops to traders.”

Ambuko said that once the harvest is over, farmers had to go to traders to buy corn. Traders doubled the price. “This had been a vicious cycle for Kenyan farmers,” Ambuko said. If farmers could not protect their crops, these crops spoiled or got infected. So, increasing the production was not the perfect solution. Harvested products were spoiled before appearing on people’s meal tables.

Now, Ambuko works to prevent crops from spoiling. “It is estimated that 30 percent of the agricultural products that were harvested was spoiled,” Ambuko said. She underlined that the large part of foods bought in the USA or Europe spoiled in the home of buyers. “Consumers of these countries have financial means to tolerate this loss,” she said.

In developing countries of Africa, the problem is related to the supply chain. For example, a mango producer in Kenya harvests between November and March. It’s possible to find mango everywhere in the months. When the supply is so high, farmers sell their harvests at very low prices.

Some farmers don’t even pick up their matured mangoes on the trees. “When you go and talk to some farmers, they tell you that they do not harvest 80 percent of the mangoes they grow. They leave 80 percent of a year’s crop to rot,” she said.

In order to overcome this problem, farmers in countries like Kenya need a cold warehouse. However, even the electricity has not yet reached the villages of these farmers. Jane Ambuko and her team are trying to help farmers with alternative technologies.

They developed a method in which wet coal surrounds cooling chambers. As the water above the coal evaporates, it absorbs the energy in the air and reduces the heat in the room. Jane Ambuko explains that farmers have come together to create coal and cooling depots together.

The United Nations aims to reduce global food waste by half until 2030. If this aim is realized, a great step to meet the food need of growing population will be taken. Jane Ambuko said that the current efforts were to increase the yield, but she said it is significant to reduce the waste. “Yes, production is part of the equation. But if you waste 30 percent of your production, it means that you are trying to fill a bucket in which there is a hole in the bottom,” she emphasized.

‘To develop’ nature
Scientists also have been working on the plant genetics. Amanda Canavagh and her team at the University of Illinois of the United States examine a process that plants have excelled for millions of years: photosynthesis.

Amanda defines photosynthesis ‘one of the beautiful biological processes of our world’: When you look outside, you can see a leaf probable. This left emits sunlight and carbon dioxide. That is incredible.

Amanda tries to make photosynthesis more ‘effective’ by changing the genes of the seeds.

“Only 5 percent of the sunlight energy is transferred to the biomass of the plant, and that makes the plant grow.”

The Rubisco enzyme, which plays a critical role in the photosynthesis reaction, enables the capture of carbon dioxide that will be converted into energy. However, Rubisco can sometimes capture oxygen instead of carbon dioxide, which in turn becomes a domino effect.

Amanda draws similarity between Rubisco and a cook: “The cook needs to get the ingredients off the shelf first. But she has to move fast. So she sometimes gets the wrong ingredients. She takes salt instead of sugar and adds it to sponge cake.”

Amanda said that such mistakes decelerate the plant growth by 30 and 50 percent. “In fact, this energy can be used to grow the plant and crop,” she said.

Amanda and her team change the plant’s genetics and make the growth process faster, which was slowed because of Rubisco mistakes. Also, in order to make it easier for Rubisco enzyme, they intensify carbon dioxide density.

“It is like we are placing more sugar on the kitchen shelves,” she said. So, crops growing out of the enhanced seeds have become bigger by forty percent.

Although many scientists argue that genetically modified plants are the new ‘green revolution’, there are also some who argue that crops produced in this way can develop resistance to antibiotics or cause serious illness.

The United Nations’ prediction that the world’s population will reach 11 billion by 2100 is seen as a risk for food safety.

Although the search for solutions in different areas continues, the world has not yet begun the second ‘Green Revolution’. Experts say that for real progress, governments and the world of science must work in full harmony, just like in the 1960s.

Source: Kate Lamble and Tim Mansel/BBC Radio 4

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