One Strategy for Addressing Food Insecurity
The current world population of 7.4 billion is projected by the United Nations to increase over 30% by 2050 to 9.7 billion, and to 11.2 billion by 2100, over 50 % above the current figure. The UN estimates that about 795 million people, about one out of every nine, currently suffer from chronic undernourishment. Assuring that adequate food is available to the world’s growing population will continue to be a challenge for world institutions for the foreseeable future.
Arable land, that is, land capable of being used for growing crops, is in limited supply in some densely populated parts of the world, particularly South Asia and North Africa. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 90% of the land that potentially could be used for agriculture is in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Arable land is being lost to urbanization, overuse/degradation, and rising sea levels. To further complicate the situation, higher average temperatures and increasing scarcity of water are reducing the productivity of existing cropland.
Feeding more people with less land is a goal of plant scientists worldwide. One such effort, known as the C4 Rice Project (http://c4rice.irri.org/), recently entered a new stage in increasing the efficiency of rice production. The project is a collaborative effort of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and eleven other institutions in eight countries, led by Professor Jane Langdale at Oxford University, who notes that over three billion people depend on rice for survival. A recent article about the project (http://c4rice.irri.org/ ) states that “a combination of population growth and land lost to urbanization means that by 2050, rice yields have to increase by over 50%.”
The project is targeting the way that photosynthesis occurs in rice. Four major crops – maize, sugar cane, sorghum, and millet – use C4 photosynthesis, while rice uses C3 photosynthesis. C4 plants are more efficient in concentrating carbon dioxide, resulting in increased efficiency in water and nitrogen use and improved adaptation to hotter and dryer climates. The goal of the project is to replicate the C4 process in a rice plant by genetically engineering rice with genes from C4 plants.
Here is where a red flag pops up. Worldwide skepticism of genetically modified organisms in food is a major challenge. How can consumers become satisfied that the process will not produce unintended consequences that threaten the environment and human health? The scientists note that C4 photosynthesis plants occur naturally, and that plants evolved C4 mechanisms over time. A focus of the current project stage is to identify possible negative effects on human consumption and the environment and to mitigate them. A February 10, 2016 article in Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/2016/02/19/genetically-modified-rice-climate-change-world-hunger-424773.html) also addressed patenting issues that have arisen when the large agribusiness corporations that have the capacity to distribute genetically modified organisms introduce intellectual property claims. IRRI insists that negotiations assure access for developing countries free from intellectual property laws.
Expanding on the interrelationships among hunger, population growth, environment, technology, and law, Julian Hibbard, a Cambridge University professor involved in the project states, “A stable supply of food in emerging economies would be an incredible boost to the global economy. It could also create greater societal stability worldwide.”