The Economist’s special feature on feeding the world pretty much pushed all the expected buttons. The challenges are great: food supplies probably have to increase by 70% in the next 40 years. More inputs — land, irrigation, fertilizers — is not exactly off the table as a strategy, but won’t be nearly enough. Technology is what we need: in particular plant breeding, though also intensification of livestock keeping. It won’t be easy: that 70% increase in production translates into things like a doubling of the growth rates in yields of wheat, to >2% per year. And climate change will make what would have been a difficult task at the best of times even harder. The growth rate in wheat yield will have to be achieved in the face of a likely 20% fall caused by a 2ºC increase in global temperatures. But advances in genomics make all this possible, although the way this was presented was somewhat eccentric, I thought:
…the change likely to generate the biggest yield gains in the food business—perhaps 1.5-2% a year—is the development of “marker-assisted breeding”—in other words, genetic marking and selection in plants, which includes genetically modifying them but also involves a range of other techniques.
Also predictable was the trotting out of the dreaded 75% figure for loss of agrobiodiversity:
Three-quarters of all the world’s plant genetic material may have gone already, mostly by habitat destruction, says Pasquale Steduto of the FAO, and more is going every day.
What was less expected, at least to me, was a final, brief but nevertheless welcome, section on the importance of micronutrients, which even suggested that technology might not be sufficient on its own:
Better nutrition, in short, is not a matter of handing out diet sheets and expecting everyone to eat happily ever after. Rather, you have to try a range of things: education; supplements; fortifying processed foods with extra vitamins; breeding crops with extra nutrients in them. But the nutrients have to be in things people want to eat.
Most unexpected, however, and most welcome, were the couple of references crop wild relatives as possible sources for solutions:
…hundreds of thousands of older varieties and wild relatives are left to the vagaries of land-use change, global warming and chance. This is a worry because some of the most desirable characteristics of plants—taste, drought- and pest-resistance—originally came from the wild gene pool, which will be needed again one day.
Alas, no mention of genebanks there, you’ll notice. Which I suppose one comes to expect. Didn’t anyone at CIMMYT, IRRI or ILRI — who all get nice name-checks — mention to the writer that in fact hundreds of thousands of samples of landraces and wild relatives are (relatively) safe in genebanks, not least in those very institutes? And that these genebanks need support, and should not be taken for granted?