Thursday, March 4, 2010

Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People (Part II)

Originally published in Science Express on 28 January 2010
Science 12 February 2010:
Vol. 327. no. 5967, pp. 812 - 818
DOI: 10.1126/science.1185383

BY H. Charles J. Godfray, John R. Beddington, Ian R. Crute, Lawrence Haddad, David Lawrence,James F. Muir, Jules Pretty, Sherman Robinson, Sandy M. Thomas, Camilla Toulmin

Increasing Production Limits

The most productive crops, such as sugar cane, growing in optimum conditions, can convert solar energy into biomass with an efficiency of ~2%, resulting in high yields of biomass (up to 150 metric tons per hectare) (33). There is much debate over exactly what the theoretical limits are for the major crops under different conditions, and similarly, for the maximum yield that can be obtained for livestock rearing (18). However, there is clearly considerable scope for increasing production limits.

The Green Revolution succeeded by using conventional breeding to develop F1 hybrid varieties of maize and semi-dwarf, disease-resistant varieties of wheat and rice. These varieties could be provided with more irrigation and fertilizer (20) without the risk of major crop losses due to lodging (falling over) or severe rust epidemics. Increased yield is still a major goal, but the importance of greater water- and nutrient-use efficiency, as well as tolerance of abiotic stress, is also likely to increase. Modern genetic techniques and a better understanding of crop physiology allow for a more directed approach to selection across multiple traits. The speed and costs at which genomes today can be sequenced or resequenced now means that these techniques can be more easily applied to develop varieties of crop species that will yield well in challenging environments. These include crops such as sorghum, millet, cassava, and banana, species that are staple foods for many of the world’s poorest communities (34).

Currently, the major commercialized genetically modified (GM) crops involve relatively simple manipulations, such as the insertion of a gene for herbicide resistance or another for a pest-insect toxin. The next decade will see the development of combinations of desirable traits and the introduction of new traits such as drought tolerance. By mid-century, much more radical options involving highly polygenic traits may be feasible (Table 1). Production of cloned animals with engineered innate immunity to diseases that reduce production efficiency has the potential to reduce substantial losses arising from mortality and subclinical infections. Biotechnology could also produce plants for animal feed with modified composition that increase the efficiency of meat production and lower methane emissions.

Domestication inevitably means that only a subset of the genes available in the wild-species progenitor gene pool is represented among crop varieties and livestock breeds. Unexploited genetic material from land races, rare breeds, and wild relatives will be important in allowing breeders to respond to new challenges. International collections and gene banks provide valuable repositories for such genetic variation, but it is nevertheless necessary to ensure that locally adapted crop and livestock germplasm is not lost in the process of their displacement by modern, improved varieties and breeds. The trend over recent decades is of a general decline in investment in technological innovation in food production (with some notable exceptions, such as in China and Brazil) and a switch from public to private sources (1). Fair returns on investment are essential for the proper functioning of the private sector, but the extension of the protection of intellectual property rights to biotechnology has led to a growing public perception in some countries that biotech research purely benefits commercial interests and offers no long-term public good. Just as seriously, it also led to a virtual monopoly of GM traits in some parts of the world, by a restricted number of companies, which limits innovation and investment in the technology. Finding ways to incentivize wide access and sustainability, while encouraging a competitive and innovative private sector to make best use of developingtechnology, is a major governance challenge.

The issue of trust and public acceptance of biotechnology has been highlighted by the debate over the acceptance of GM technologies. Because genetic modification involves germline modification of an organism and its introduction to the environment and food chain, a number of particular environmental and food safety issues need to be assessed. Despite the introduction of rigorous science-based risk assessment, this discussion has become highly politicized and polarized in some countries, particularly those in Europe. Our view is that genetic modification is a potentiallyvaluable technology whose advantages and disadvantages need to be considered rigorously on an evidential, inclusive, case-by-case basis: Genetic modification should neither be privileged nor automatically dismissed. We also accept the need for this technology to gain greater public acceptance and trust before it can be considered as one among a set of technologies that may contribute to improved global food security.

There are particular issues involving new technologies, both GM and non-GM, that are targeted at helping the least-developed countries (35, 36). The technologies must be directed at the needs of those communities, which are often different from those of more developed country farmers. To increase the likelihood that new technology works for, and is adopted by, the poorest nations, they need to be involved in the framing, prioritization, risk assessment, and regulation of innovations. This will often require the creation of innovative institutional and governance mechanisms that account for socio-cultural context (for example, the importance of women in developing-country food production).New technologies offer major promise, but there are risks of lost trust if their potential benefits are exaggerated in public debate. Efforts to increase sustainable production limits that benefit the poorest nations will need to be based around new alliances of businesses, civil society organizations, and governments.

Reducing Waste

Roughly 30 to 40% of food in both the developed and developing worlds is lost to waste, though the causes behind this are very different (Fig. 3) (16, 37–39). In the developing world, losses are mainly attributable to the absence of food-chain infrastructure and the lack of knowledge or investment in storage technologies on the farm, although data are scarce. For example, in India, it is estimated that 35 to 40% of fresh produce is lost because neither wholesale nor retail outlets have cold storage (16). Even with rice grain, which can be stored more readily, as much as one-third of the harvest in Southeast Asia can be lost after harvest to pests and spoilage (40). But the picture is more complex than a simple lack of storage facilities: Although storage after harvest when there is a glut of food would seem to make economic sense, the farmer often has to sell immediately to raise cash.

In contrast, in the developed world, pre-retail losses are much lower, but those arising at the retail, food service, and home stages of the food chain have grown dramatically in recent years, for a variety of reasons (41). At present, food is relatively cheap, at least for these consumers, which reduces the incentives to avoid waste. Consumers have become accustomed to purchasing foods of the highest cosmetic standards; hence, retailers discard many edible, yet only slightly blemished products. Commercial pressures can encourage waste: The food service industry frequently uses "super-sized" portions as a competitive lever, whereas "buy one get one free" offers have the same function for retailers. Litigation and lack of education on food safety have lead to a reliance on "use by" dates, whose safety margins often mean that food fit for consumption is thrown away. In some developed countries, unwanted food goes to a landfill instead of being used as animal feed or compost because of legislation to control prion diseases.

Different strategies are required to tackle the two types of waste. In developing countries, public investment in transport infrastructure would reduce the opportunities for spoilage, whereas better-functioning markets and the availability of capital would increase the efficiency of the food chain, for example, by allowing the introduction of cold storage (though this has implications for greenhouse gas emissions) (38). Existing technologies and best practices need to be spread by education and extension services, and market and finance mechanisms are required to protect farmers from having to sell at peak supply, leading to gluts and wastage. There is also a need for continuing researchin postharvest storage technologies. Improved technology for small-scale food storage in poorer contexts is a prime candidate for the introduction of state incentives for private innovation, with the involvement of small-scale traders, millers, and producers.

If food prices were to rise again, it is likely that there would be a decrease in the volume of waste produced by consumers in developed countries. Waste may also be reduced by alerting consumers to the scale of the issue, as well as to domestic strategies for reducing food loss. Advocacy, education, and possibly legislation may also reduce waste in the food service and retail sectors. Legislation such as that on sell-by dates and swill that has inadvertently increased food waste should be reexamined within a more inclusive competing-risks framework. Reducing developed-country food waste is particularly challenging, as it is so closely linked to individual behavior and cultural attitudes toward food.

Changing Diets

The conversion efficiency of plant into animal matter is ~10%; thus, there is a prima facie case that more people could be supported from the same amount of land if they were vegetarians. About one-third of global cereal production is fed to animals (42). But currently, one of the major challenges to the food system is the rapidly increasing demand for meat and dairy products that has led, over the past 50 years, to a ~1.5-fold increase in the global numbers of cattle, sheep, and goats, with equivalent increases of ~2.5- and ~4.5-fold for pigs and chickens, respectively (2) (Fig. 1). This is largely attributable to the increased wealth of consumers everywhere and most recently in countries such as China and India.

However, the argument that all meat consumption is bad is overly simplistic. First, there is substantial variation in the production efficiency and environmental impact of the major classes of meat consumed by people (Table 2). Second, although a substantial fraction of livestock is fed on grain and other plant protein that could feed humans, there remains a very substantial proportion that is grass-fed. Much of the grassland that is used to feed these animals could not be converted to arable land or could only be converted with majorly adverse environmental outcomes. In addition, pigs and poultry are often fed on human food "waste." Third, through better rearing or improved breeds, it may be possible to increase the efficiency with which meat is produced. Finally, in developing countries, meat represents the most concentrated source of some vitamins and minerals, which is important for individuals such as young children. Livestock also are used for ploughing and transport, provide a local supply of manure, can be a vital source of income, and are of huge cultural importance for many poorer communities.

Reducing the consumption of meat and increasing the proportion that is derived from the most efficient sources offer an opportunity to feed more people and also present other advantages (37). Well-balanced diets rich in grains and other vegetable products are considered to be more healthful than those containing a high proportion of meat (especially red meat) and dairy products. As developing countries consume more meat in combination with high-sugar and -fat foods, they may find themselves having to deal with obesity before they have overcome undernutrition,leading to an increase in spending on health that could otherwise be used to alleviate poverty. Livestock production is also a major source of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas, though this can be partially offset by the use of animal manure to replace synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (43). Of the five strategies we discuss here, assessing the value of decreasing the fraction of meat in our diets is the most difficult and needs to be better understood.

Expanding Aquaculture

Aquatic products (mainly fish, aquatic molluscs, and crustaceans) have a critical role in the food system, providing nearly 3 billion people with at least 15% of their animal protein intake (44).

In many regions, aquaculture has been sufficiently profitable to permit strong growth; replicating this growth in areas such as Africa where it has not occurred could bring major benefits. Technical advances in hatchery systems, feeds and feed-delivery systems, and disease management could all increase output. Future gains may also come from better stock selection, larger-scale production technologies, aquaculture in open seas and larger inland water bodies, and the culture of a wider range of species. The long production cycle of many species (typically 6 to 24 months) requires a financing system that is capable of providing working capital as well as offsetting risk. Wider productionoptions (such as temperature and salinity tolerance and disease resistance) and cheaper feed substrates (for instance, plant material with enhanced nutritional features) might also be accessed with the use of GM technologies.

Aquaculture may cause harm to the environment because of the release into water bodies of organic effluents or disease treatment chemicals, indirectly through its dependence on industrial fisheries to supply feeds, and by acting as a source of diseases or genetic contamination for wild species. Efforts to reduce these negative externalities and increase the efficiency of resource use [such as the fish in–to–fish out ratio (45)] have been spurred by the rise of sustainability certification programs, though these mainly affect only higher-value sectors. Gains in sustainability could come from concentrating on lower–trophic level species and in integrating aquatic and terrestrial foodproduction, for example, by using waste from the land as food and nutrients. It will also be important to take a more strategic approach to site location and capacity within catchment or coastal zone management units (46).


There is no simple solution to sustainably feeding 9 billion people, especially as many become increasingly better off and converge on rich-country consumption patterns. A broad range of options, including those we have discussed here, needs to be pursued simultaneously. We are hopeful about scientific and technological innovation in the food system, but not as an excuse to delay difficult decisions today.

Any optimism must be tempered by the enormous challenges of making food production sustainable while controlling greenhouse gas emission and conserving dwindling water supplies, as well as meeting the Millennium Development Goal of ending hunger. Moreover, we must avoid the temptation to further sacrifice Earth’s already hugely depleted biodiversity for easy gains in food production, not only because biodiversity provides many of the public goods on which mankind relies but also because we do not have the right to deprive future generations of its economic and cultural benefits. Together, these challenges amount to a perfect storm.

Navigating the storm will require a revolution in the social and natural sciences concerned with food production, as well as a breaking down of barriers between fields. The goal is no longer simply to maximize productivity, but to optimize across a far more complex landscape of production, environmental, and social justice outcomes.

References and Notes

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53. The authors are members of the U.K. Government Office for Science’s Foresight Project on Global Food and Farming Futures. J.R.B. is also affiliated with Imperial College London. D.L. is a Board Member of Plastid AS (Norway) and owns shares in AstraZeneca Public Limited Company and Syngenta AG. We are grateful to J. Krebs and J. Ingrahm (Oxford), N. Nisbett and D. Flynn (Foresight), and colleagues in Defra and DflD for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. If not for his sad death in July 2009, Mike Gale (John Innes Institute, Norwich, UK) would also have been an author of this paper.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the article. I'm always asking how to end hunger.
    Casey Davis
    Eden Pure Heaters