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Stopping global hunger will require mix of high-tech, GM, organic methods

| March 8, 2016

By 2050, we’re going to have a lot more neighbors. That’s when the earth’s population is expected to reach between 9 and 10 billion people, up from the current population of about 7 billion.

One big question has become: how will we feed these extra 2-3 billion human beings?

One idea is to convert more land to farming, but this may not be plausible. Currently, the areas of the earth best suited for agriculture are already being used to grow crops and raise livestock. Furthermore, climate changes could alter this picture, making currently colder climes more amenable, but making tropical areas less so. So, if we can’t just plow up more land, we’ll have to get this extra food with more efficiency, which either means achieving higher yields or by reducing waste and loss.

Food that doesn’t make it from the farm to a consumer’s mouth is an enormous problem worldwide. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about one-third of the food produced every year is lost or wasted. And industrialized and developing countries are about equally to blame, in terms of amount. Wealthy countries waste about 670 million metric tons, while 630 million metric tons of food are lost in the developing world. A Finnish study calculated that if these depletions could be cut in half, another billion people could be fed.

The words “waste” and “loss,” reflect two very different ways by which these vast amounts of food disappear. And these “wastes” versus “losses” point to very different methods and strategies that could resolve the problem:

  • Industrial countries like the United States, Canada and Europe waste food. That means people in these countries throw out edible food after it’s sent out for purchase, either in a market or a restaurant. Per capital waste in Europe and North America comes to about 100 kg a year, while the same type of waste in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia only amounts to about 8 kg a year. This is caused by consumer preferences of “perfect” looking produce, confusion over “use by,” “sell by” and “best by” labeling, and promotions that encourage purchase of larger portions.
  • In the developing world, losses arise starting with production, continuing through harvesting and post-harvesting. This, according to the FAO, is due to “poor infrastructure, low levels of technology and low investment in the food production systems.” These problems result in poor harvesting, post-harvest and processing techniques, and a lack of information on demand versus supply of crops and food.

Solutions for food loss range from the practical—better storage and refrigeration, better roads and transport — to the technological — matching crops to demand, finding new ways to use seeds, crops, fertilizers, pesticides, and care for the soil. So, wouldn’t genetic engineering play a role here?

No, it would not, claim a number of anti-GMO activists and others:

According to Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard and oft-quoted observer of social and scientific trends:

The Green Revolution was supposed to be the fantastic application of technology to solving a major human problem. And what happened? Well it definitely helped. There was definitely very significant progress and we don’t want to downplay the progress that was made. But where are we today? Well 2 billion people on this planet are still hungry and they’re not hungry because we don’t have enough food. They’re hungry because we don’t know how to distribute and store and get food to the people who need it. That’s not a problem of technology. That’s a problem of human institutions.

In her blog post, activist and author Robyn O’Brien conflates the industrial “waste” problem with the developing world’s “loss” problem, and adds an anti-GMO message:

The promise of these products [GMOs] to feed the world is not working here in the U.S. It’s tough to sell this when 45 million Americans go hungry and we throw away 40% of our food.

She does point to the amount of GE food that’s produced in the United States and compares that figure to our still staggeringly high waste totals to show that GE isn’t a solution to waste.

Related article:  Sustainability advantage: 'High-yield' intensive agriculture outpaces organic farming, large study shows

Genetic modification may not be a solution to wasted food in the industrialized world. That problem probably is a “human institution” one. But, as the Finnish study showed, the industrialized world on a per capita basis wastes much more than, say, a farmer in sub-Saharan Africa. That means that African farmer has a lot less to lose, while an American or Briton has plenty to give away.

Where there’s no guaranteed overnight delivery

So, all we need to do is take the tri-tips, bruised apples, and “sell by” bread out of our dumpsters and mail it to Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Sudan?

Not quite. Since one of the big problems behind food loss involves transportation, and communications between small farmers and other parts of the food supply chain, means just sending excess food won’t work.

  • Heat and storage time do deplete some nutrients like Vitamin A, but not iron or zinc in rice. While this report from Cambodian and French researchers questions the use of rice as a nutrient carrier, it doesn’t address the fact that farmers and consumers in this area live on less than $1,000 a year a year; not enough to buy more expensive produce or raise other crops. It also points to one key need to reduce loss — cooler, and more secure storage.
  • As this article by a group from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Auckland, New Zealand and University of Chile hints at, some of the problems in the developing world could be helped by GM (though they don’t make specific mention about genetic modification). In addition to transport and storage issues, farmers in some regions could use technological help to improve weather predictions, but also to, as the authors phrase it, “use technology to detect threats and then protect crops — for example, through targeted pesticide use.”
  • One area where shipments do need improvement is in getting better seeds (GM or otherwise developed) to farmers, especially in areas where farms are small, land is tough to work with, and farmers deal mostly with small, informal market stalls, local traders, and neighboring families. By bypassing more formal markets, these farmers aren’t’ getting higher quality, certified seeds that could help with production issues.

Robert Fraley, chief technology officer of Monsanto, in 2014 proposed a multi-pronged solution to losses that incorporates a number of measures, conventional, GE and organic (yes, organic):

  • Precision farming, using “big data” and other computerized data management that can better tell when to use which seed, how much water and fertilizer to use.
  • Plant extracts and beneficial microbes that can replace chemicals to protect against weeds, insects and disease.
  • Genetic modification of crops to increase yield, protect against weeds, disease and improve storage (like the Simplot non-browning potato, or rice that’s been bred to survive in droughts or floods, or using RNAi to confer resistance to rootworm, corn borer, or even drought).
  • Organic techniques like cover crops and water/soil conservation practices.

Nobody expects food waste and loss to completely disappear. Even the Finnish study assumed that such losses could be reduced by no more than the areas currently wasting the least (that would be sub-Saharan Africa). And reducing waste on the industrialized country’s side won’t cover the total population increase. Likewise, nobody except the most die-hard activist on either side expects that one solution will likely make much of a dent into the loss issue, acting alone.

It’s going to take more than a village. It’s going to take a planet of techniques, technology, and human intervention.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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