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Global Issue 15

Inbox GLOBALIST Oliver Tickell Science’s seeds of hope for the hungry New crop varieties being developed in international laboratories to help feed the hungry should be geared to the needs of consumers and farmers, not just multinational conglomerates The world faces a complex of major challenges that threaten to bring grim food shortages in the coming decades. Severe weather events have become frequent – from fl ood to drought, from heat wave to unseasonal chill. Poor agricultural practices are leading to the wholesale loss of fertile land to salinity and erosion, while fungal crop diseases are spreading globally. The human population continues to increase towards a predicted nine billion by 2050. And rising economic prosperity in China and other rapidly industrialising countries is increasing appetites for animal produce, multiplying the demand for primary crops. By 2050, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts a 70 per cent increase in gross food requirement. Meanwhile, governments in Europe, the United States and other countries have chosen to replace some fossil fuels used in power production and transport with ‘biofuels’, from woodchips to edible oils and ethanol brewed from corn or sugar cane. So, just as the world has never had so many hungry mouths to feed, biofuels are ramping up demand on already stressed food production systems. The result is plain to see for residents of Singapore, choking in the smoke of countless forest fi res across the islands of Indonesia resulting from huge scale forest clearance and burning for oil palm plantations. Likewise in the Amazon basin, forests, wetlands and dry grasslands are cleared for cultivation. And there is a growing trend for foreign investors to buy up vast tracts of land in poor countries, particularly Africa, to make giant farms – displacing entire rural communities from the lands they have worked for generations in the process. So what are the prospects for saving the world from famine, without destroying priceless ecosystems or evicting small cultivators from their farms? First, we need to intensify food production sustainably on land already under cultivation. It makes particularly welcome news that the UK’s National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in Cambridge has bred a new type of wheat offering 30 per cent increase in yield compared to established varieties. NIAB’s Synthetic Hexaploid Wheat resulted from crossing a durum wheat cultivar with a wild goat grass. And the new wheat is hardy, yielding 12 l www.global -br ief ing.org thi rd quar ter 2013 global


Global Issue 15
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