Leadership needed to reduce hunger: professor

GM technology is expected to improve tolerance to extreme conditions and create more nutritious crop varieties

An Australian professor is convinced the human race is capable of producing enough food to feed nine billion people.

However, Les Copeland of the University of Sydney is less convinced we will eliminate hunger, considering we now produce enough food to feed the world’s population but one out of seven people go to bed hungry and two in seven people suffer nutrient deficiencies.

“It’s going to require transformational change, requiring enlightened policy, but most of all, requiring leadership, and that’s an area we seem to be lacking in most parts of the world,” Copeland said during a lecture in Saskatoon that was part of Ag-West Bio’s celebration of biotechnology week.

Aside from the problems of unequal food distribution and waste, Copeland said it will also be necessary to produce more food — at least 17 percent more by 2050.

For example, today’s seven billion people consume 183 million tonnes of protein a year, so nine billion people will consume 235 million tonnes annually.

Predictions become even more daunting when considering the move toward higher protein diets in countries such as India and China and the increasing use of proteins obtained from livestock.

Forty percent of current grain production is used as livestock feed.

Copeland acknowledged the importance of horticulture in the human diet, but said grain is the foundation of human food systems, providing the balance of energy, protein and other essential nutrients. He said this is largely because grain is extremely dense and easy to store and transport.

Conservative estimates say grain production will need to be increased by one to 1.5 bill

ion tonnes of grain per year by 2050. “(However,) we are approaching the point where we can’t increase inputs of land, water, energy, and soil nutrients,” Copeland said.

He said agriculture will face hurdles while trying to increase productivity: loss of prime agriculture land to urbanization, access to affordable energy, finding nitrogen and phosphorus, severe weather and under-investment in technological development.

Advances and innovation in farming technologies and techniques will be important to increase food production, he added.

“Information technologies, remote sensing and geographic information systems allow for the construction of soil mapping, which is valuable for landscape planning,” Copeland said.

“Understanding of the suitability of soils and selecting crops that will grow well on particular soils, as well as measuring things like fluxes of carbon and water in the nutrients, and doing all sorts of modeling processes, these have led to variable rate technologies and controls.”

He said biotechnology will play a crucial role in expanding genetic diversity.

“GM is just one technology, and it’s not something that will be adopted very widely, but it does extend the pool of genetics that we can tap into to get attributes that may be important,” Copeland said.

“One of the biggest constraints in our knowledge at the moment is linking genes with their function. It’s like having a telephone book where you have all of the numbers, but you only have 20 percent of the names. Putting names to those numbers is a really big challenge. GM is an important approach to doing that. It doesn’t mean that particular GM product is going to be used commercially.”

Copeland said scientists can screen for a specific gene once its function is understood and then access it through selective breeding programs.

He said it’s important to efficiently use nutrients and water, improve tolerance to extreme conditions and increase yields when developing new crop varieties.

However, increasing yields must be accompanied with maintaining quality, and more attention is now given to the health benefits and human physiology when developing crop and animal varieties.

He said diet is responsible for one-third of disease worldwide.

“If we are going to manage health care costs, our food system is going to be an important way of doing it.”

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