Calorie deficiency is closer than we think, how can nutritionally modifying plants help?
The challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050 has been widely communicated. Agriculture knows this will require investment, innovation and change. Sara Menker, founder and CEO of Gro Intelligence, evaluated this issue, discovering it’s not 2050 we should be planning for, it’s much closer. Menker explains in her TED Talk there’ll be a deficiency of 214 trillion calories by 2027.
So what are some solutions?
While some have advocated that organics can feed the world, it’s not feasible. It’s also not likely that developed nations will change eating habits or drastically reduce food waste unless it’s enforced. So what is left? When it comes to feeding a world with a rapidly increasing population, there are 3 basic options that can address food security:
- Increase the amount of land in production.
- Increase the yield potential of the crops currently being produced.
- Increase the nutrient composition of the crops.
Let’s assess each of these.
While there is some land that could be used for crop production, as Menker mentions, it would mean deforesting land to be able to do so. Deforesting land is a trade-off, while this land may not produce high volumes of food, it’s an ecosystem asset. Another land option is to better utilize the arable land. Much of the worlds available lands are in Africa which could be brought into production. This is feasible, however, it’ll be difficult without better policy, infrastructure, transportation, banking and inputs like fertilizers. Bringing under-utilized land into production is a better option that’ll require investment to be successful, but won’t entirely address the calorie deficiency and production challenge.
Yielding to potential crop yields
Increasing yield has long been one of the goals of plant breeders the world over. The FAO estimated in 2006 that yield increases of 2% per year are required to feed a global population of 7 billion. Research into yearly average yield increases in the USA from 1900-2007 has been 1.58% for corn, 1.12% for wheat, 1.55% for rice and 1.6% for soybeans. With the exception of wheat, these figures look reasonably close to accomplishing the 2% per year target, however, when the post-1990 yield increases are examined, concern arises. Yield increase percentages drop for all commodities: corn to 1.5%, wheat to 0.15%, rice to 1.37% and soybeans to 1.16%. Corn, wheat and rice are defined as staple crops by the FAO. To feed a population in excess of 7 billion, yield increases greater than 2% per year are required and the best information available at the moment, suggests this is not a feasible option for feeding 9 billion. Investments should still be made in plant breeding as positive yield increases contribute to increasing food supply. Investment in and commercialization of higher yielding varieties in developing countries, especially African ones, will have a significant impact, but won’t be enough on its own to address food insecurity.
NUTRITION VALUE OVER PRODUCTION METRICS
The one option that doesn’t get much discussion is the nutritional composition of the foods we rely on. Not all foods are equal and the focus on tonnes produced does not necessarily reflect quality or quantity of nutrition. In some cultures, either by design or default, plant-based nutrition comprises 100% of people’s diet, therefore plant nutrients are essential. If we want to improve the nutrition of our staple foods, all breeding techniques should be applied in pursuit of this goal, conventional mutagenesis, transgenic and gene editing will all contribute.
Nutrigenomics is the study of how to improve plant nutrients through gene expression. From a health perspective, plant components of dietary interest can be broadly divided into four main categories: macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, lipids [oils], fiber); micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, functional metabolites); anti-nutrients (substances such as phytate that limit the bioavailability of nutrients); and allergens (intolerances and toxins). Of these, the first two can be enhanced and the latter two be limited or removed to improve overall consumer benefits. Not only can nutritionally enhanced foods or functional foods improve an individual’s nutrient intake, they are of increasing interest in the prevention and/or treatment of at least four of the leading causes of death in the United States: cancer; diabetes; cardiovascular disease; and hypertension.
- The US National Cancer Institute estimates that one in three cancer deaths are diet related and that eight of ten cancers have a nutrition/diet component.
- Inverse relationships have been observed between carotenoid-rich foods and certain cancers.
- Other nutrient-related correlations link dietary fat and fiber to the prevention of colon cancer, folate to the prevention of neural tube defects, calcium to the prevention of osteoporosis, psyllium to the lowering of blood lipid levels and antioxidant nutrients to the scavenging of reactive oxidant species and protection against oxidative damage of cells that may lead to chronic disease, to list just a few.
- Further, many food components are known to influence the expression of both structural genes and transcription factors in humans.
ACCEPT OUR CURRENT ISSUES AND START WORKING TOGETHER FOR SOLUTIONS
When it comes to feeding a future world population, increasing the amount of cropland carries environmental costs that seem marginal at best. Increasing the yield of crops certainly helps, but that will not get us all the way there. The most logical of the options is to increase the innovative research on increasing the nutritional component of crops and foods. Let’s face reality, our food issues of feeding 9 billion in 2050 are not a quarter century away, are issues are less than a decade away. Rather than advocating against innovations in agriculture, we need to put aside our differences and embrace innovations, policies and support of agriculture which will increase yields, the scale of production and most importantly nutrition.
 It would be feasible to argue there is a 4th option, increasing the commercialization of agriculture, including new crop varieties. For the purposes of this blog, I treat this as part of increasing variety yield.
Hungry for more info?
Golden Rice has been nutritionally enhanced to increase β-carotene. It was genetically engineered to help combat the death of hundreds of thousands of children each year who suffer from vitamin A deficiency.
Since 1961 the continent of Africa has seen a 70.4% decline in agricultural land per capita.
During this same time period, the land used for agriculture has grown 11% to 4.87 million ha of arable and grazing land, yet growing populations has led to the world average for ag. land (ha/capita) to decrease 52%, below 0.7 ha/person.
In the USA alone, the average yield gap between potential tons per hectare for rainfed corn and actual harvested yield = 4.3. While Brazil’s gap =7.8 t/ha & numerous African nations gaps >11 t/ha.
India’s Irrigated rice has a gap of 4.6 t/ha, while its rainfed harvest gap is only slightly larger at 5.1 t/ha.