Special Issue of Science: Food Security

Cover of this week´s Science: bags of rice await export from India to Europe. Photo: Simon Rawles/Alamy, Source: Science Magazine, 12 February 2010.

Continuing population and consumption growth will mean that the global demand for food will increase for at least another 40 years, with the world population reaching a projected peak of some 9 billion by 2050.  Many anticipated scenarios of population and food consumption growth are raising serious concerns about food security in coming decades. In a special issue of Science, published on February 12, 2010, news articles, reviews, perspectives and interviews examine the obstacles and some promising solutions to achieving global food security, as well as the implications of climate change and energy use for feeding the world. See below the available summaries and links to articles and other contents in this special issue of Science.


Reaping Benefits of Crop Research, by David Baulcombe 

In 2009, for the first time since the 1950s and the early stages of the Green Revolution, food security was taken seriously by policy-makers. There was substantial output from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, and with studies by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a UK government Foresight group due this year, there is no sign that this renewed interest will fade. This revival follows assessments by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and others that population growth, urbanization, climate change, and the availability of natural resources present a challenge to global food security. Somehow the world must produce 50 to 100% more food than at present under environmental constraints that have not applied in the past. 

See here how to access the full text. 

Science Podcast 

The show includes measuring food insecurity, rethinking agriculture for the 21st century, and reducing meat consumption. 

Click here to listen to this podcast. 

Click here to access the podcast transcript.  

Introduction to the Special Issue 

Feeding the Future, by Caroline Ash, Barbara R. Jasny, David A. Malakoff, and Andrew M. Sugden 

Feeding the 9 billion people expected to inhabit our planet by 2050 will be an unprecedented challenge. This special issue examines the obstacles to achieving global food security and some promising solutions. News articles take us into the fields, introducing farmers and researchers who are finding ways to boost harvests, especially in the developing world. Reviews, Perspectives, and an audio interview done by a high school intern provide a broader context for the causes and effects of food insecurity and point to paths to ending hunger. 

Read the full article here

Other Contents of the Special Issue                 

From One Farmer, Hope—and Reason for Worry, by Gaia Vince 

Analysts estimate that nearly 2 million of Uganda’s 31 million people experience food insecurity due to supply problems or rising prices. Nearly 80% of the people in some regions depend on food aid to survive. Such problems could worsen as Uganda’s population, which has been increasing at more than 3% per year, surges to an estimated 100 million by 2050. To keep pace, Uganda’s farmers will need to at least triple current harvests. Scientists can play an important role in boosting yields by helping farmers get the most from fundamental resources, such as water (see p. 800), soil (see p. 801), and seeds (see p. 802).  But complex social, economic, and psychological challenges are raised by food insecurity; science alone won’t transform fields from brown to green. 

See here how to access the full article. 

Getting More Drops to the Crops, by Gaia Vince 

Thanks to a little help from researchers equipped with satellite imagery, farmers in Raj Samadhilyia, a tiny village in Gujarat, have been able to do a better job of capturing, managing, and using the precious water provided by scanty rains. As a result, they are achieving a goal that scientists say will be essential to achieving food security worldwide: getting more crop per drop, particularly in areas where water could become scarcer due to climate change.  It’s a rare achievement, however, as water management remains a major challenge in dry parts of India and elsewhere. In Africa, for instance, most farmers still depend on unpredictable rains. Just 10% of Africa’s farmland is irrigated, compared with 26% in India and 44% in China. 

See here how to access the full article. 

China’s Push to Add by Subtracting Fertilizer, by Mara Hvistendahl 

China is the world’s largest user of synthetic fertilizer, consuming 36% of the global total. As a result, China’s farmers have exceeded soil needs, causing nitrates to accumulate and create serious pollution problems. And the hunger for nitrogen has added to China’s energy and greenhouse gas emissions: In the atmosphere, those nitrates form nitrous oxide, a potent warming gas. Now, as the country attempts to coax even bigger harvests from the land, soil scientists want to end China’s fertilizer binge. Through several promising demonstration projects, they are showing farmers that reducing fertilizer use can improve crop yields without adding to environmental problems. The new maxim, say Chinese soil scientists, is “Less input, more output.” That strategy could also hold promise for farmers in nations with too little fertilizer but a big need to increase soil fertility. 

See here how to access the full article. 

Sowing the Seeds for the Ideal Crop, by Elizabeth Pennisi 

Listen to plant breeders talk about food security, and the message becomes loud and clear: Substantial improvements are needed in current crops to achieve higher yields and sustainable farming. To achieve those gains, agricultural companies have turned to robotics and other measures to streamline breeding programs. And researchers are finding creative ways to introduce and use genes. The point is to make a plant that’s tough, productive, and healthful. Here’s a quick look at just some of the most desired plant improvements—and the techniques that might make them possible. 

See here how to access the full article. 

Armed and Dangerous 

Researchers are working hard on countermeasures to the fungi, weeds, and viruses that are among the more serious biological threats to food security.  See here descriptions of the most dangerous diseases threatening crop production around the world: 

Wheat Stem Rust 

Potato Blight 

Black Sigatoka 


Rice Blast 

Asian Soybean Rust 

Cassava Brown Streak Virus 

Holding Back a Torrent of Rats, by Dennis Normile 

Rodent losses are a perennial problem worldwide. In Asia, for instance, rodents devour an estimated 6% of the annual rice harvest—roughly enough to feed Indonesia’s 240 million people for a year. And they do damage in nearly every phase of farming, from munching on seedlings to eating stored grain. Agriculture agencies across Asia are now spreading the word about some relatively simple rat countermeasures. 

See here how to access the full article. 

Spoiling for a Fight With Mold, by Dennis Normile 

Mold spoils some 10% of the world’s annual harvests. And perhaps more significantly, many fungi produce mycotoxins, poisonous chemicals that can accumulate in human tissues. The most dangerous is aflatoxin, which is elevating rates of liver cancer and likely stunting childhood growth in Africa, Southeast Asia, and China. Mycologists are studying a possible solution that involves introducing spores of a benign fungus into the soil in hopes it will outcompete and drive out the aflatoxin-producing strain. 

See here how to access the full article. 

Dialing Up Knowledge—and Harvests, by Richard Stone 

From paved roads that carry crops to market to modern grain silos that reduce postharvest losses, infrastructure is critical to achieving food security. But nothing is currently having a more profound effect on farmers in the developing world than telecommunications networks. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for instance, the ubiquitous cell phone and expanding broadband Internet coverage are revving up an experiment called Village Knowledge Centers, the template for an ambitious initiative to help farmers boost yields by disseminating information. A similar effort has just gotten under way in India’s northern neighbor, Bhutan. 

Access here the full article. 

What It Takes to Make That Meal 

Food security and energy security. They are increasingly becoming two sides of the same coin. Many experts predict that, over the long term, one can’t be achieved without the other. In part, that’s because increasing yields has traditionally meant using more fossil fuels—for fertilizers, pesticides, mechanization, storage, and transport. Now, the push is on to find ways to produce food with as little energy—and greenhouse gas emissions—as possible. As a start, researchers have been taking a close look at just how much energy it takes to produce even seemingly similar foods. The conclusion: Food choices can have a significant impact on energy use in agriculture. 

Access here the full article.  

Could Less Meat Mean More Food? by Erik Stokstad 

Here’s a simple idea you may have heard for improving food security: Eat less meat. The logic goes like this. People in the developed world eat a huge amount of animal protein. And consumption of meat, eggs, and milk is already growing globally as people in poorer nations get richer and shift their diets. That’s a problem because animals are eating a growing share of the world’s grain harvests—and already directly or indirectly utilize up to 80% of the world’s agricultural land. Yet they supply just 15% of all calories. So, the argument goes, if we just ate less meat, we could free up a lot of plants to feed billions of hungry people and gain a lot of good farmland. Some food-security researchers, however, are skeptical. Although cutting back on meat has many potential benefits, they say the complexities of global markets and human food traditions could also produce some counterintuitive—and possibly counterproductive—results. 

See here how to access the full article.   Click here to listen to a podcast interview. 

For More Protein, Filet of Cricket, by Gretchen Vogel 

Could an African caterpillar be the new beefsteak? As the world diverts more of its grain harvests into producing meat, some scientists are pushing policymakers to take a closer look at insects as an environmentally friendlier source of protein. Whereas a cow needs to eat roughly 8 grams of food to gain a gram in weight, for instance, insects need less than two. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is currently developing policy guidelines that will encourage countries to include insects in their food-security plans. 

See here how to access the full article. 

Smart Investments in Sustainable Food Production: Revisiting Mixed Crop-Livestock Systems, by M. Herrero et al. 

Farmers in mixed crop-livestock systems produce about half of the world’s food. In small holdings around the world, livestock are reared mostly on grass, browse, and nonfood biomass from maize, millet, rice, and sorghum crops and in their turn supply manure and traction for future crops. Animals act as insurance against hard times and supply farmers with a source of regular income from sales of milk, eggs, and other products. Thus, faced with population growth and climate change, small-holder farmers should be the first target for policies to intensify production by carefully managed inputs of fertilizer, water, and feed to minimize waste and environmental impact, supported by improved access to markets, new varieties, and technologies. 

See here how to access the full article. 

Measuring Food Insecurity, by Christopher B. Barrett 

Food security is a growing concern worldwide. More than 1 billion people are estimated to lack sufficient dietary energy availability, and at least twice that number suffer micronutrient deficiencies. Because indicators inform action, much current research focuses on improving food insecurity measurement. Yet estimated prevalence rates and patterns remain tenuous because measuring food security, an elusive concept, remains difficult. 

See here how to access the full article. 

Precision Agriculture and Food Security, by Robin Gebbers and Viacheslav I. Adamchuk 

Precision agriculture comprises a set of technologies that combines sensors, information systems, enhanced machinery, and informed management to optimize production by accounting for variability and uncertainties within agricultural systems. Adapting production inputs site-specifically within a field and individually for each animal allows better use of resources to maintain the quality of the environment while improving the sustainability of the food supply.   Precision agriculture provides a means to monitor the food production chain and manage both the quantity and quality of agricultural produce. 

See here how to access the full article. 

African Green Revolution Needn’t Be a Mirage, by Gebisa Ejeta 

Africa missed out on the scientific breakthroughs that revolutionized agriculture in Asia. However, with locally developed and locally relevant technologies, a built-up human and institutional capacity, and supportive national policy and leadership, an African Green Revolution can be a reality. 

See here how to access the full article. 

Radically Rethinking Agriculture for the 21st Century, by N. V. Fedoroff et al.

Population growth, arable land and fresh water limits, and climate change have profound implications for the ability of agriculture to meet this century’s demands for food, feed, fiber, and fuel while reducing the environmental impact of their production. Success depends on the acceptance and use of contemporary molecular techniques, as well as the increasing development of farming systems that use saline water and integrate nutrient flows. 

See here how to access the full article. 

Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People, by H. Charles J. Godfray et al. 

Continuing population and consumption growth will mean that the global demand for food will increase for at least another 40 years. Growing competition for land, water, and energy, in addition to the overexploitation of fisheries, will affect our ability to produce food, as will the urgent requirement to reduce the impact of the food system on the environment. The effects of climate change are a further threat. But the world can produce more food and can ensure that it is used more efficiently and equitably. A multifaceted and linked global strategy is needed to ensure sustainable and equitable food security, different components of which are explored here. 

See here how to access the full article. 

Breeding Technologies to Increase Crop Production in a Changing World, by Mark Tester and Peter Langridge 

 To feed the several billion people living on this planet, the production of high-quality food must increase with reduced inputs, but this accomplishment will be particularly challenging in the face of global environmental change. Plant breeders need to focus on traits with the greatest potential to increase yield. Hence, new technologies must be developed to accelerate breeding through improving genotyping and phenotyping methods and by increasing the available genetic diversity in breeding germplasm. The most gain will come from delivering these technologies in developing countries, but the technologies will have to be economically accessible and readily disseminated. Crop improvement through breeding brings immense value relative to investment and offers an effective approach to improving food security. 

See here how to access the full article.


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