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14 September 2009
Coping with a growing population

The world’s population is moving towards nine billion or so. Many more people will be prosperous, too, increasing the appetite for protein. Many more people are going to want more than soy and rice. So, the big question for the future of food is how we cope with adding the equivalent of another two Chinas to the world in the space of about two generations.

Andrew C Revkin
environment reporter, New York Times

The great new demand on agriculture is to keep boosting productivity. We’ve done it before. We’ve had a green revolution – in fact, we’ve really had more than one, and we need at least one more. That revolution could be genetic, it could be technological, it could be energy-related. Whatever it is, the status quo won’t suffice.

Even if we manage to achieve a green revolution at a global level, we also have regional issues. The population of Africa is expected to double from one billion to two billion by 2050, and Africa has had very little success in boosting productivity in its agricultural systems. The chances of there being additional stresses in places that are already turbulent and prone to shortages are high. So while I think it is feasible that these production problems can be solved on a worldwide scale, it’s hard not to see Africa as a persistent troublespot for agriculture.

There are some small-scale success stories. Malawi is now exporting food aid when just a few years ago it was having real trouble. The New York Times wrote about how that turnaround was a function of fertiliser availability and pricing, subsidies and so on (See Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the Experts). But Malawi is still very much the outlier and I can still see some real crunch points coming for Africa.

Another area of concern has been the effect of dwindling water supplies on agriculture. I’m pretty optimistic about the power of innovation to deal with that problem, again with some regional variability. No one is building desalination plants in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. On the other hand, we wrote a series in the New York Times in 2007 called The Climate Divide that looked at how technology and wealth are enabling industrialised countries to shield themselves from climate-related risks.

Perth in Australia has already built a substantial desalination plant that runs on wind power and that has become the poster child of what’s possible. They’re basically turning wind into drinking water or agricultural water, and it’s been successful enough that they are now scaling up that operation.

Soil salinity is a considerable problem in many areas, so salt-tolerant crops will help a lot. In the really long run there’s mariculture, producing food from the sea, for example with seaweed cultivation. There are limitless possibilities open for exploitation. If there really were a crunch on water, humanity has shown itself to have a capacity really to get busy and come up with new ways to get around that problem.

This outlook could apply to all technologies, including genetic modification (GM). In my experience, black-and-white debates like the one we’ve seen around GM are more framed by ideologies than the reality of the science. I think there’s a huge potential for crops and food synthesis using a variety of technologies like GM.

One area that often gets forgotten is food preservation. We lose 25 to 50 per cent of the food grown in the fields due to avoidable deterioration. There’s lots of evidence that this could often be prevented by irradiating food. I wrote about radiation in the wake of 9/11 because it’s expanding into a lot of countries as the way to keep food fresh and there’s very little evidence that it creates any kind of a harmful by-product. Yet there’s still a lot of resistance because of that funny word ‘radiation’, particularly in the environmental community. Turkey is doing it and Brazil is moving a long way towards it. It can give fruit, vegetables, milk and a variety of other foods a much longer shelf-life.

There are some other technologies which are still a little way off that could be very interesting in the long term. One is the idea of meat grown in vitro. It all sounds totally goofy now, but if you don’t like killing living animals, you don’t want to utilise a lot of land to grow food, and you can develop a really efficient, low-carbon energy source - maybe photovoltaic panels - then you could have solar-powered meat factories culturing cells for food. Interestingly, given the controversy it arouses now, foie gras could be the perfect starting point (as I reported here). It’s very easy to grow a liver, so you could grow livers without the ducks and have a very high-volume product.

All that said, many of the problems the world faces in terms of feeding itself are not really questions of science and technology. The circumstances that turn a drought into a famine are often political, economic and infrastructural, so those are the key questions we need to deal with. But the possibilities that arise from the application of human ingenuity are very exciting and have the potential to solve a lot of our problems.

This article is based on an interview by Rob Lyons.

Andrew C Revkin has been environment reporter for the New York Times since 1995 and writes the newspaper’s Dot Earth blog.

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