The multiple challenges for global food security


Will agricultural intensification, such as higher-producing crops and more efficient agricultural practices, be sufficient on its own to meet the rise in global food needs predicted for 2050? Not according to Professor Chris Gilligan, Chair of the University of Cambridge’s Strategic Initiative in Global Food Security. He says the dramatic 60-100% spike in food needs forecast for the coming decades is reason to think that crop intensification will need to be complemented by agricultural expansion and a change in human diet.

Professor Gilligan was speaking on Global Food Security at a Gates Conversation earlier this week. The session was part of a new series of academic conversations that allow Gates Cambridge Scholars to interact with leading thinkers on major issues spanning a variety of disciplines.

During the conversation – part lecture, part Q&A, part open forum – Professor Gilligan touched on a range of related topics, from wasted food in the UK to the Green Revolution to projected global population growth. The unifying thread, of course, was the critical issue of food security, defined by the FAO as a state that “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. Providing food security, however, remains a major hurdle as roughly one in eight worldwide suffer from chronic hunger and more than double that (about two billion) suffer from insufficient acquisition of vitamins and minerals.


From a biodiversity standpoint, Professor Gilligan’s prediction about the need for a range of initiatives on food security will likely mean an approach to conservation that utilises both land sparing and land sharing. Land sharing consists of reduced-intensity agriculture that integrates production and conservation; for instance, a farmland stream with a 50m buffer of native vegetation on either side sacrifices area that could be cultivated for crops, but will probably contain more species of birds and other wildlife than a stream without a buffer strip. Land sparing, on the other hand, focuses on high-intensity agriculture on less land, allowing for the establishment of larger nature reserves using land “spared” from cultivation. Considerable research is being done in the conservation community to assess the conditions under which each agricultural approach should be encouraged, but almost certainly both will be essential to creatively achieve the highly intertwined goals of food production and environmental protection.

Another issue highlighted by Professor Gilligan was the development of modeling approaches, by himself and others, to mitigate the spread of crop diseases such as wheat rust, a highly destructive wheat fungus sometimes known as the “polio of agriculture”. Prof Gilligan explained how both wind and human dispersal have allowed the fungal disease to move quickly around the world; the fungus is already present in Europe, the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Africa. In Ethiopia last year, farmers lost up to 70% of their crops due to a wheat rust outbreak. Professor Gilligan and his team are fighting this problem using mathematical models that predict the hazards presented by wheat rust according to environmental factors and social issues, thereby improving predictions, as he told The Independent recently, for “when, where, and how the disease spreads, which regions are most at risk and how to control epidemics”.  By better understanding the mechanisms that govern outbreaks, Professor Gilligan and his colleagues have already been able to help sampling teams find further outbreaks, thereby getting more information more quickly about the spread of the disease.

He concluded the conversation by challenging Gates Cambridge Scholars to use our research to pursue innovative solutions to the painfully urgent yet massively complex issue of food security. The way forward will demand vast amounts of effort and resources, but surely Professor Gilligan is correct: a world in which hunger and malnutrition are eliminated is well worth our talents and time. For more on strategic initiatives at the University please see here.*David Kurz [2013] is a Gates Cambridge Scholar and MPhil student in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. He currently studies ecology and conservation in Sumatra and would love for you to email him at and follow him on Twitter @datlifeflow. Picture credit: franky242 and


Early origins of the military-industrial complex


In his 1961 Farewell Address, US President Dwight Eisenhower famously warned his fellow citizens about the “military-industrial complex”. In the years since September 11, 2001, a soaring Pentagon budget, long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, scandals involving defence contractors and leaks about government surveillance – to name just a few – have reminded many of Eisenhower’s warning.

Most historians agree with Eisenhower that the military-industrial complex began in the mid-twentieth century. And they are correct – if we define the military-industrial complex in terms of its scale and permanence. But if we instead consider certain of its essential dynamics, its origins are to be found in the decades before World War I. What gave rise to the military-industrial complex was not a single war like World War II or the Cold War, but the collision of geopolitical tension, globalisation and industrialisation.

In the late nineteenth century, what many scholars call the Second Industrial Revolution was transforming societies and economies around the world. The steel, electrical and chemical industries exploded, and Germany, Japan, and the United States emerged as competitors to Britain’s longtime industrial hegemony. These increasingly industrialised economies became ever more closely linked, as new communications technologies and financial instruments drew nations together into a globalising world economy. Even as they grew more economically dependent on each other, however, nations engaged in fierce geopolitical competition, both on the European continent and over more distant imperial holdings.


Torpedoes were at the centre of all three trends. They were invented in 1866 by Robert Whitehead, a British expatriate in the Austro-Hungarian empire who sold to nations around the world. Like steamships, torpedoes were metal and ran on engines, but torpedoes could be produced in much larger numbers because they were relatively inexpensive and small compared to ships. Despite their size, torpedoes threatened to undermine traditional tactics and strategies based on fighting battles and commanding the seas with big, expensive ships carrying heavy guns. Torpedoes were also at the cutting edge of the technologically possible. By 1910, they could reach ranges of six miles and speeds of 50 miles per hour – faster than a Model-T Ford.

Procuring advanced industrial technology like torpedoes drove governments and the private sector into a new kind of relationship. Previously, governments had either built weapons for themselves or bought them as finished products from the private sector. But torpedoes were so expensive and sophisticated that neither governments nor private firms had the capacity to development from start to finish. Instead, governments and contractors began to collaborate on research and development (R&D).

That collaboration raised difficult questions about intellectual property rights. With both the public and private sectors participating in the work of invention, ownership of intellectual property (IP) was disputable. The US and British governments – both nominally liberal – aggressively asserted their claims against private intellectual property to avoid paying royalties and to restrict the sale of torpedoes abroad. When they realised that their IP claims were weak, thanks to errors they had made in drafting contracts, the governments sought more advantageous terrain, reclassifying disputes as being about national-security information rather than intellectual property. Both governments relied on anti-espionage legislation – the 1889 Official Secrets Act in Britain and the 1911 National Defence Secrets Act in the United States – to classify scientific and technological information as secret for reasons of national security.

Thus, the origins of the military-industrial complex and the national-security state lie not in the mid-twentieth century but in the decades before World War I. Eisenhower, for all his alarm, may have been too sanguine. A complex brought into being by a particular war like World War II or the Cold War might be expected to end when the war ended. But a complex rooted in world-historical forces like globalisation, geopolitics and industrialisation, transcending any single war, would not end when a war ended. It would endure, and nations at peace would become ever more difficult to distinguish from nations at war.

*Kate Epstein [2004] did an MPhil International Relations and is author of the recently published Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain. She is currently Assistant Professor of History Education at Rutgers University – Camden. Picture credit: and photoexplorer.

How technology is changing opera


Technology has played a role in opera from its inception: Baroque-era stagings dazzled with live water features and gods riding chariots across the sky. The Metropolitan Opera’s infamously expensive and inconsistent machine for their recent Ring cycle and the current popularity of projected animations as scenic backdrops are simply a continuation of this trend. Opera’s elevated place among the arts is due, in part, to its incorporation of many media: music, acting, dance, architecture, painting, woodworking, costume design and more. To include modern feats of engineering, computer animation and cinematography fits this model.

But technology is also changing opera more fundamentally by enabling new rehearsal and performance methods and by itself becoming a topic for new operas. In the former category, we have the advent of singers’ lessons and coaching via Skype, online-only concerts and even an attempt at an online opera. Also worth considering is the way modern transportation has allowed top singers to undertake more global engagements and the influence live streaming (online or in cinemas) is having on performances. Video streaming shapes costuming, sets, make-up, the importance of singers’ appearances and even whether top singers will accept a role.

When I consider new operas that wrestle with questions of technology, two come to mind. Tod Machover’s futuristic Death and the Powers, often dubbed the ‘robot opera’, was created by the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group. It questions billionaire Simon Powers decision to achieve immortality by merging his consciousness with ‘the System’. He becomes a disembodied presence in his home (importantly, one who can ‘still sign cheques’ and has ‘billions of bucks’), but his family members must come to terms with his confusing presence and decide whether to merge with ‘the System’ as well. The technological demands of presenting the opera are high: it includes autonomous ‘operabot’ characters and a complicated sensor array through which aspects of Simon Powers’ offstage performance (such as movements and body temperature) control set elements.

In contrast to this ‘opera of the future’, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys deals with the recent past. Loosely based on an English murder case from 2003, it dramatises the stabbing of one teenage boy by another, precipitated by a complicated web of chatroom provocation and deceit. The reception of Two Boys points to the challenges of recent technology as a theme:  some critics mentioned that the focus on chatrooms already felt passé by the opera’s 2011 premiere. It is harder for audiences to see the universality of stories in near-modern settings than of those in the distant past or future. (Is the letter scene in Eugene Onegin also passé because written letters are no longer the fashion? Is Death and the Powers inaccessible because it deals with technologies that don’t yet exist?) Regardless, the internet is hardly superannuated, and Two Boys pioneered the musical and visual representation of the internet on the operatic stage. Its ‘digital space’ appears in the form of towering white walls of text and projections and the choristers’ faces are lit by the glow of their ever-present laptops. Characters sing full sentences while chatspeak abbreviations appear behind them; choruses routinely intrude with short, layered phrases –  bits common to internet chatrooms or even arbitrary pieces of data from the singers’ memories.

As both a tool and a topic, technology wields great influence on the arts, and opera is no exception. Operas that engage with technology- as an innovative performance method, a subject to explore, or both – have the potential to attract young, wired audiences. Operatic newcomers who attend the internet-fuelled drama of Two Boys or the futuristic dilemmas of Death and the Powers may find they like the experience of sung drama in general. Similarly, long-time subscribers who are familiar with the classic repertoire may find enjoyment in both new operas and technologically innovative stagings of old favourites.

*Ilana Walder Biesanz [2013] is doing an MPhil in European Literature and Culture. She was involved in the first online opera and is on the panel of Opera21 Magazine’s ‘Technology and Opera’ discussion. Picture credit: Stuart Miles and

The urgent need for affordable treatment for sleeping sickness


Last week, Bill Gates called for the world to step up the fight against ‘neglected tropical diseases’such as sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis, trachoma and several others that collectively cause as much damage as HIV, malaria or  tuberculosis.

The current R&D and intellectual property systems provide no incentives to pharmaceutical companies to develop and deliver drugs to those affected by these diseases. Little-known and poorly understood internationally, they are ancient diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries and still affect nearly one billion people today – people who largely lack political voice, live in remote areas and are extremely poor.

I was initially attracted to studying trypanosomes, the single-celled parasites that cause sleeping sickness, due to the sheer audacity that they seem to show in the human host. Trypanosomes remain in the bloodstream where they are exposed to the full force of our immune response, but manage to evade it by changing their surface composition using a rapid and efficient transport system.

They then manage to enter the central nervous system and start to cause the neurological symptoms that give sleeping sickness its name: sleep cycles are disrupted, there is lack of muscle coordination etc, eventually resulting in death unless treated. Drugs to treat this second stage of the disease have been very hard to develop and treatment regimens are complicated and require hospital infrastructure, which is scarce.

So it’s been great to see progress in the last few years with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation leading the drive to increase investment into drug delivery and Research & Development. And it’s particularly heartening to see that the new oral treatment Fexinidazole,which is much easier to deliver, has progressed to phase II trials.

More research needed

On the flip side – this is only the second treatment that has been developed in the past 25 years – the other one being NECT, a combination treatment of drugs already in use: intravenous eflornithine and oral nifurtimox. And considering that only about 48% of drugs progress from phase II to phase III and there are increasing incidents of drug resistance in trypanosomes, we need to develop more candidates.

Fexinidazole was developed and tested in the 1970s and 80s and then abandoned – its success now indicates that  investigation of a family of known pharmacologically active compounds with newly available technologies may be a good low-cost approach to take.

However, these technologies must also be used to study fundamental aspects of parasite biology to identify new therapeutic targets, which is the approach my lab has taken.

The focus of my PhD project is the trypanosome transport system, which is one of the main factors that enable it to survive in the host. This system maintains the surface of the trypanosome, which is entirely covered by a dense coat of a molecule called “variant surface glycoprotein” – VSG – which forms an  impenetrable barrier against the host immune system. Additionally, the swift and streamlined nature of the system enables trypanosomes to internalise and neutralise any antibodies that our immune system produces against this VSG. It also enables them to replace the existing coat with newly produced modified VSGs which our immune system can no longer recognise and act against.

Recent advances in genome sequencing have given us complete DNA sequences of several disease-causing parasites. I am using these resources to study the evolutionary history of the proteins that make up the transport system in trypanosomes. I have also started to use proteomics to find novel interacting partners of key players in the transport system in order to build up our understanding of the structure of the system in trypanosomes compared to, say, our own cells.

Evolutionary analysis combined with proteomics enables us to pick up proteins that are present in trypanosomes and are essential for their survival, but are not present in mammals. They can therefore be a powerful way of uncovering and elucidating potential parasite-specific drug targets.

Of course, this is only the first step – and things get more expensive as a drug candidate goes through the clinical trials system. In recognition of the acute suffering these diseases cause, increased investment from foundations, governments and pharmaceutical companies are an important part of the solution. But in the long term, it is also important to have R&D and intellectual property systems that don’t depend on donations to function.

*Divya Venkatesh [2011] is doing a PhD in Pathology. Picture credit: Wiki Commons and Adrian Custer.