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King’s speech

Posted 24/05/2011 by KatieJ

The Loess Plateau in North-Central China is an arid expanse of red dirt where little grows and through which runs the grimy waters of the so-called Yellow River. But it wasn’t always so. Step back to the 14th/15th century Han Dynasty and the regions lush green fields and clear waters of the then ‘Mother River’ fed and watered a growing and hungry population. It didn’t last long. Fast forward a few decades and over-intensive farming had left the region barren – much as it is now.

Today, we simply cannot afford to make another mistake of that kind, said ex-UK chief government scientist Sir David King, speaking at the annual IFST lecture at London’s Royal Society last week: ‘Yet at the same time we are preparing to make a mistake of that kind.’ At that time of the Han Dynasty, the solution was for the population simply to up sticks and move to other plentiful and fertile lands elsewhere – in that case, Beijing. To do so today, however, is becoming increasingly difficult as the available acreage is simply no longer there. Instead, the only viable answer is to raise productivity, to grow more on the same acreage.

With the world population set to swell to 9bn people on the planet by 2050, experts say that would require a doubling of crop yield per acre. The only trouble is that no one has worked out how to do that successfully yet.

Extracting food from the sea is likewise increasingly challenging. While roughly 30% of the world’s protein intake derives from the oceans, King commented that fish stocks around the globe are continuing to decline – with some regions seeing a nearly 80% cut in fish catches against the peak year. Despite this, only 1% of the planet’s oceans are protection zones.

The economics of fishing aren’t helping either, King continued. A rare bluefish tuna, for example, recently sold at auction in Japan for $396,000 - a big incentive for greedy fishermen seeking to snare the next bluefin tuna in their traps, he pointed out: only who knows, that could be the last bluefin tuna of all.

As for the Loess Plateau, thanks to generous public funding this is currently the world’s biggest agricultural restoration project, King enthused. An area the size of France has already been to its former verdant glory, with the entire area scheduled for restoration by 2020. A faint glimmer of hope for the future, maybe?

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor

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