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Nature Series Examines Role Science Can Play In Securing Food For The Future

As part of a series of stories and editorials on the role science can play in securing food for the future, Nature News examines the challenges associated with feeding the world’s hungry.

“In 2009, more than 1 billion people went undernourished – their food intake regularly providing less than minimum energy requirements – not because there isn’t enough food, but because people are too poor to buy it,” the news service writes. “Although the highest rates of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa – tracking closely with poverty – most of the world’s undernourished people are in Asia.”

The piece tracks several world hunger trends, including that prior to the “food crisis” in 2008, “the percentage of hungry people in the developing world had been dropping for decades … [yet,] the number of hungry worldwide barely dipped.” Despite initial fears “a great population boom … would stress food production, … population growth is slowing,” Nature News adds. “Even as population has risen, the overall availability of calories per person has increased, not decreased. Producing enough food in the future is possible, but doing so without drastically sapping other resources, particularly water, will be difficult.”

“Many countries can make gains in productivity just by improving the use of existing technologies and practices. But sustainable intensification also means generating greater yields using less water, fertilizer and pesticides,” the article continues. “Increased public investment in agricultural research will be crucial to doing this, say experts. Yet this investment makes up only 5% of total research and development spending on science.”

The article notes that though agricultural research is increasing, it is doing so “at a much slower rate than in the 1970s during the green revolution,” with the exception of China, where funding for research “has more than doubled over the past decade,” Nature News writes. The piece also includes several graphics on food trends (Butler, 7/28).

“If the 9 billion people expected to inhabit the world by 2050 are to be fed, then farms in low-income countries must grow more food, sustainably, on water- and nutrient-poor soils,” Nature News writes in a separate article that examines how agricultural biotechnology companies are working to develop such crops.

“Researchers and policy-makers realize that they can’t meet the food-security challenge without the private sector, which makes up a significant share of the global agricultural research effort,” the news service notes. “Monsanto’s annual research budget alone is US$1.2 billion, just topping the US federal government’s total spend on agricultural science of $1.1 billion in 2007 (the most recent figures available). In contrast, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the world-leading group of centres carrying out agricultural R&D for developing countries, has an annual budget of $500 million.”

The article examines partnerships between agricultural biotechnology companies and non-profit research centers in developing countries and includes comments by Roger Beachy, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and researchers involved in the ongoing projects (Gilbert, 7/28).

Another article in the series examines Brazil’s emergence as an “agricultural powerhouse” in recent years and how the country is addressing the challenges that come with this role. The piece details Brazil’s efforts to encourage adoption of sustainable farming practices and reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Climate is just one of many challenges that Brazil faces as it attempts to expand and modernize its agricultural system. The biggest corporations already run world-class operations, but many of the country’s farmers in remote rural areas are desperately poor and are using equipment that seems to date from the nineteenth century,” according to the article. “Improving rural agriculture thus involves expanding access to information and reducing social inequities.”

“‘Twenty years ago, we were thinking only about frontier expansion and monocrops,’ [Mateus] Batistella, [head of the research arm of Brazil’s agriculture ministry], says. ‘Now all agricultural researchers are talking about is intensification, no-tillage agriculture, about crop rotation and agroforestry.’ Ways, in other words, to feed the world without levelling the forest,” Nature News writes (Tollefson, 7/28).

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