English philosopher Thomas Malthus famously predicted more than three centuries ago that global food supplies would eventually fail to meet the needs of the world’s growing population. According to a report from the BBC, that prediction may finally come true despite the advances of modern technology.
The BBC estimates Earth’s population will exceed nine billion by 2050, potentially resulting in a 70 percent increase in demand for food production — and a 100 percent increase in some developing countries. Climate change, limited fresh water supplies and growing competition from biofuels will make growing sufficient food a greater challenge. In 2011, the BBC reported, more American corn was used for biofuel than food production for the first time.
Scientists are investigating innovative ways to solve this looming problem, and some are not letting nature stand in the way.
Plant scientist Stephen Long told the BBC he is currently attempting to “improve on billions of years of evolution” by finding new ways to “harness energy from the sun.” Long aims to enhance the chemical process of photosynthesis, which uses solar energy to convert carbon dioxide into sugar and other organic compounds. If the plan works, plants will be better able to produce sugar and starch all by themselves.
Long’s work highlights the role carbon dioxide emissions play in crop development. Atmospheric carbon dioxide, which has been steadily increasing for decades, aids in photosynthesis and might improve yields of staple crops like wheat, rice and soy by up to 15 percent in the near future, according to the BBC.
As they have in the past, researchers are also pursuing ways to improve existing farmland. The International Rice Research Institute is developing a strain of rice that can flourish in the flooded lands of the Philippines. Because as many as 49 million acres are flooded yearly in the Philippines, tackling this problem could provide enormous yields of rice in areas that are now essentially barren.
Scientists have already developed a strain of rice that is “submergence-resistant,” and have distributed it to farmers in countries across Southeast Asia, including India, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Developing new crops in an effort to ward off worldwide hunger is nothing new. In 1970, American agronomist Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for creating high-yield crops that helped avert famines in Latin America and Asia. Now, scientists aim to spread their engineered crops to the developing areas that need them the most.
“IRRI hopes it will reach 5 million farmers in Asia and Africa by 2014 and 20 million farmers by 2017,” the organization said.
Meanwhile, the non-profit organization HarvestPlus is attempting to add more nutrients to existing staple foods like corn and wheat. These crops tend to be deficient in zinc, iron, vitamin A and other important micro-nutrients that aid in the development of disease resistance, physical growth, and even intelligence.
Despite these advances, questions remain: Will farmers in developing nations adequately make use of these new technological programs, assuming they ultimately bear fruit? Can organic agriculture produce sufficient yields without the need for genetically modified crops, which potentially carry their own risks?
Regardless of the answers, scientists agree that avoiding Malthus’ vision of the future will require significantly more work and, most problematically, time.
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