Food for a Hungry World: We Must Find Ways to Increase Agricultural Productivity

Nina V. Fedoroff

© Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 1997, page B4

Monsanto researchers have inserted a new gene into the DNA of the soybean plant. The gene produces a slightly different form of an enzyme, making Monsanto's soybeans immune to the effects of an herbicide commonly used to kill weeds in soybean fields. Farmers growing the genetically engineered soybeans can use the herbicide more efficiently, killing weeds as they appear rather than trying to prevent them before they and the soybeans have sprouted. Monsanto's soybeans. though, are still identical to other soybeans in composition and food value.

Public reaction to biotechnology.

As a result, U.S. regulatory agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, found no scientific reason for segregating them from regular soybeans. European regulators agreed. But the European public didn't, and retailers there asked for special labels on the genetically engineered soybeans.

I suspect that all genetically engineered plants will be more or less fiercely resisted at first. When human smallpox vaccinations using cowpox virus were new, people were also quite alarmed. Cartoons depicted inoculated people turning into cows. The same sorts of cartoons characterized the early days of our use of recombinant DNA, but today we take genetically engineered pharmaceuticals almost as much for granted as smallpox vaccinations.

The genetic engineering of plants is not unlike the kinds of modifications that were made by previous generations of plant breeders, although the tools of the trade are more diverse and sophisticated. Still, if public reaction to genetically engineered crops is so negative, its it essential to produce them?

Absolutely. The techniques that farmers around the world have used in past decades to achieve enormous gains in productivity no longer are enough to keep up with population growth and other stresses on the global food supply. Much more public attention should be focused on this critical fact.

Why first agricultural revolution worked for only thirty years.

The farmers of the 1950's were the first to witness a doubling of the world's food supply over the course of their lifetimes, thanks to the increased use of fertilizer, chemicals to control pests and disease, irrigation, and crop varieties developed to produce higher yields. During the early 1980's farmers' productivity had gotten far enough ahead of the population-growth curve to increase per-capita grain output by an unprecedented 40 per cent. Plant breeders were continuously modifying grain crops to respond positively to greater amounts of fertilizer. New varieties of grains, such as dwarf wheat and rice, allowed farmers to increase their crop yields.

The United States was staggering under almost unmanageable agricultural surpluses, and agricultural productivity everywhere seemed to be on an endless roll when I served on my first government advisory committee in 1980. The panel was convened by the Congressional Office of Technology assessment to forecast the ability of worldwide agriculture to meet humans' need for food in the coming decades.

Seventeen years have passed --only an instant of historical time--but in that instant th e ascending curve of agricultural productivity has broken, first flattening, now inching toward decline in many parts of the world. The annual increases in agricultural yields of 3 to 5 per cent in recent decades now have shrunk so much that they are no longer enough to keep ahead of a growing population.

What happened? Nothing dramatic--just a bit of this and a bit of that.

To begin with, although each new hybrid plant responds better to fertilizer than the last hybrid, the rate of improvement is slowing, so it does less good to keep applying more fertilizer. But other factors are at work, too. We're beginning to press against limits in every direction. The acreage used for crops is no longer increasing, because virtually all of the best land on the planet is already in production. The amount of land used to grow grain expanded by abut 24 per cent between 1950 and 1981: in the next 11 years, the rate of growth declined. Between 1950 and 1978, irrigated acreage expanded by 2.8 per cent each year. Since then, the growth has been half that - below the growth rate of the world's population - as a result of the depletion of aquifers and other factors.

And there are other problems.

Worse yet, we're losing ground - quite literally. Worldwide, topsoil loss is estimated at 24 billion tons per year; topsoil blows away in drought-ridden areas and runs off of plowed fields. We can only partially offset this loss by increased use of fertilizer.

In some parts of the world, air pollution is lowering agricultural productivity more than soil erosion is. Experts estimate a reduction of 5 to 10 per cent in the United States, and countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are in far worse shape. And if that's not enough, we also face more flooding, from deforestation, and more resistance of insects and other pests to chemicals. Nor can we turn to the oceans as a last resort for food. The oceans have been fished at or beyond capacity since 1989.

The bottom line is this: The world's people are consuming more than they are producing. Perhaps the most telling indicator is that stockpiles of grain have decreased each year since 1986. Analysts estimate that farmers stored only 235 million metric tons of grain in 1996, the lowest amount in decades, and the analysts predict a further decline.

And the human population is still growing. It is now 5.8 billion, more than twice what it was in 1950. The demand for food nearly tripled in the same period, as many people's incomes rose and they could afford to eat better. Were we able to distribute the world's food equitably, we could still feed the entire world's population today with an adequate, though not generous, diet. But the population is increasing by almost 90 million each year. Conservative estimates suggest that it will reach almost 12 billion before stabilizing.

How biotechnology might produce new agricultural revolution.

Where will future gains in food production come from, to match these increases in population? The answer is simple - and extraordinarily difficult. We must find new ways to increase agricultural productivity, despite the fact that annual growth in productivity has slowed in recent years. Reversing the trend will not be easy. Nor will it be cheap. In my view, understanding how plants function - and using that knowledge to raise productivity - is a task second in importance only to that of controlling population growth.

We cannot simply rely on the biotechnology industry, however. Companies are in business to make money, and what they choose to develop first, understandably, are the agricultural modifications that promise to be the easiest and most profitable.

If we cannot look to industry for the profound breakthroughs that we need, we must focus more of our government research dollars on agriculture. Few people realize how fragile our food supply is, and the current distribution of research funds reflects that. To keep increasing food production in the face of population growth and the accelerating degradation of the earth's productive land will take some miracles of knowledge and genetic engineering.

Scientists need to explore how plants respond to stress caused by, for example, ultraviolet radiation, heat, drought, and toxic compounds in the air, water, and soil. And we will need to use every resource we can muster - every trick of plant breeder and biotechnologist alike - to keep growing more food. Plants have inherent limits to their ability to harvest light - which, in turn, sets limits on their productivity. We need to understand these limits to change them. In new knowledge lies our only hope for wresting more productivity from increasingly impoverished land.

Today we designate only a penny or two of each dollar spent for research in the life sciences to basic plant research. What sort of crisis will it take to make us invest more? Research takes time. How soon will it be too late?

Nina V. Fedoroff is director of the Life Sciences Consortium and Biotechnology Institute at Pennsylvania State University.


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Edited by: wilkins@mps.ohio-state.edu [July 1997]