The multiple challenges for global food security

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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.

Biodiversity

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 dave.kurz@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @datlifeflow. Picture credit: franky242 and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

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