How to feed a hungry world

This week, the G20 Agriculture Ministers gathered for their first-ever meeting to discuss potential measures to address price volatility and record high food prices. The key to any long-term solution is acknowledging that we need to empower the very people whose lives are most affected by food shortages. Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people get their food and income by farming small plots of land. The potential of small farmers for getting us out of this and future food crises cannot be overstated.

Today, we find that millions of lives depend upon the extent to which agricultural science can keep pace with the growing global population, changing climate, and shrinking environmental resources — and the extent to which this science is available to millions of the world’s poorest farmers.

Few people will argue with the idea that we need to grow more food. World economic and agricultural leaders have projected that the human population will surpass 9 billion by 2050, and 10 billion by the turn of the century. And they have forecast that we must double or even triple food production to meet demand.

Yet, already 40 percent of the earth is farmed (an area the size of South America). The amount of arable land is limited and what is left is being lost to urbanization, water shortages, erosion, and environmental degradation. Farmers are so pressed for space in many parts of the world that much of the land now being farmed is marginal, such as the steep hills of Ecuador. Overuse of pesticides sickens farmers and continuous cultivation of the same land drains it of nutrients.

So how will we keep up? How will we feed the world without destroying it?

My husband Raoul Adamchak and I often discuss this question. Raoul has been an organic farmer for thirty years, and I’m a plant geneticist. You may think that a geneticist and an organic farmer represent polar opposites. But we both have the same goal: an ecologically based system of agriculture that is able to grow more food, largely on existing farmland.

When Raoul and I wrote “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food,” our intention was to give readers a better understanding of how geneticists and organic farmers address our big challenge–creating a healthy and productive agricultural system–and how what we do can be complementary.

We believe that the discussions about agriculture must be framed in the context of the environmental, economic, and social impacts of farming–the three pillars of sustainable agriculture. Rather than focusing on how a seed variety was developed, we must ask what most enhances local food security and can provide safe, abundant and nutritious food. We must ask if rural communities can thrive and if farmers can make a profit. We must be sure that consumers can afford the food. And we must minimize environmental degradation.

Both organic farming and biotechnology have a seat at this table. Organic farming began as a response to the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, and relies on integrated management to control pests and disease. And while organic production practices can be an important component of sustainable agriculture, they cannot address every constraint faced by farmers, including some diseases and pests, challenges posed by climate change, and the need for adequate nutrition.

This is not to say that genetic engineering is always the most appropriate technology, but there are times when it can help rapidly solve major problems.

Rice is a good example. It is a daily source of food and calories for more than half the worlds’ people. Yet dependence on rice may come with a price, as the grain is deficient in vitamin A. Many of those who rely on rice are also vitamin A deficient. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. It also impairs immune system function and increases the risk of death from certain childhood diseases.

Plant breeders are using biotechnology to develop a new rice variety called Golden Rice, a unique type of rice that contains beta carotene, a source of vitamin A. Because rice contains negligible amounts of beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A, genetic modification is required to boost micronutrient levels. Crop breeders and farmers are now working together to develop varieties of Golden Rice appropriate to different growing conditions, with the intention of making these golden grains available to help meet urgent nutrition needs for many of the world’s poor.

As we address global issues of food and nutrition security we need everyone at the table. This includes breeders, organic farmers, seed companies, charities, geneticists, consumers. We need more support for agricultural research that is responsive to the unique needs of poor small-holder farmers. And we need the G20 to invest in agricultural development in the least developed countries, give farmers the freedom of technology choice, and explore options for international governance of food markets.

This post was first published on Reuter’s blog.