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Can science and technology provide food security – or will we go hungry?

wheat

23 Mar 2015

Dr David Evans, recipient of the Lampitt Medal in 2013 and member of the SCI Agrisciences Group and Membership Affairs Committees, presented a thought provoking lecture to members and guests of the Thames & Kennet Group.

David, previously, the global Head of Research & Technology of Syngenta International AG, started with a quote by ISAAA (the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications) chairman Clive James: 'In the next 50 years, mankind will consume as much food as we have consumed since the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago.' Given such a huge demand for food, compounded with the problem of decreasing arable land due to both urbanisation and global warming, food security is a huge question for our generation – how are we going to ensure that enough food is produced to keep up with the increasing demand?

Existing technology, such as mineral fertilisers, crop protection and plant breeding has already ensured that food production can keep up with growth of population; however more is needed to be done – by 2050 we need to double our food production. The challenge, as mentioned before, is that not much land is available. The speaker identified several ways of making more food available, including promoting vegetarianism (which he admitted will not prove very popular) and elimination food waste, which is up to 50% in the US. Dr Evans then focussed on the topic of increasing crop yields, starting with traditional methods such as using shorter stemmed plants, and controlling the heat and humidity. A lot of research is currently being undertaken on increasing yield, especially through using better weed-killers. Four approaches are commonly in use:

  • Synthesising analogues of successful products, seeking improvements and 'patent-busting'.
  • Screening of candidate compounds – the 'spray and pray approach' is to make hundreds and thousands of molecules and hope one of them works.
  • Natural products as leads – for example fungicides in nature are very potent since fungi need to kill off other fungi to gain space and nutrients; we could modify these naturally occurring fungicides.
  • Rational design – we can find how proteins work by studying their structure (e.g. by X-ray crystallography) and then design new chemicals with that knowledge in mind (e.g. chemicals with the correct structure).

Dr Evans ended the talk by reminding us that the battle is not lost – although it is a monumental task to feed so many people, if we start early and take the issue seriously, then science and technology should be able to cope with the demand. However we need to start acting soon – before we can sell a crop it needs to go through many millions of pounds of testing taking over 10 years, thus only through a collective effort can we rise to the challenge.

We thank Dr Evans for his detailed account of a global problem that does not have the coverage it deserves.

Anthony Wong,
Charterhouse

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