In recent years, food security has become a major concern in the UK and many other countries. But what does this mean? Food security refers to the availability of food for individuals at national and global levels. It’s not easy to see the problem when the supermarket shelves are full and doctors warn of an obesity epidemic, but many countries, such as Mexico and Indonesia, have already seen protests and violent riots over the increasing cost of food – up 80% in some sectors in 2008 – and the raw materials needed to produce it.
UK production falling
The UK produces 60% of the food it consumes – a figure that has been falling gradually each decade – and so the world’s food problems are Britain’s problems. And as a rising world population is challenged by climate change which could lead to drought, new pests and diseases and geopolitical conflicts for resources and raw materials, securing tomorrow’s harvest today has never been more important.
The story in statistics
Figures underline the urgent need for action. World population is 6.5Bn but predicted to reach 9Bn by 2050. That’s a lot of extra mouths to feed, yet today over 1Bn people are chronically undernourished; 180M children are severely underweight; 400M women are anaemic. In Africa, per capita food intake is 20% less than it was in 1960 and average crop yields are 1 tonne per hectare – the same as estimated in the UK 2000 years ago - put another way, food demand is projected to increase by 50% by 2030 and double by 2050.
Using more land to grow food is not an option for densely-populated industrialised countries, and across the world the best arable land is already being used. Therefore, the mission is to use the same amount of land to grow more food of greater nutritional value, using less energy, water and pesticides whilst producing less waste.
The role of science
There are many ways that science is facing the food security challenge. Plant breeding, for example, has produced drought-resistant varieties of oilseed rape, sugar-beet suitable for UK climates, and pearl millet – a crop that assures food security for half a billion people across Africa and Asia. Breeding has also created shorter varieties of wheat that produce more edible grain and less inedible stem. Scientists are now breeding ‘dwarf’ varieties of the world’s other staple crops, such as sorghum, rice and maize.
Working with wheat
But that doesn’t mean that work with wheat is complete. The International wheat genome sequencing consortium toils to decode the wheat genome. It’s a huge task – the species that is used for bread-making, Triticum aestivum, has three sets of chromosomes and has more DNA than the human genome but the rewards are there. Researchers in the UK at The University of Nottingham in collaboration with scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) are crossing a Mexican wheat variety with more grains per ‘ear’ with a UK variety to increase yield in the UK’s long summer growing period.
Understanding how plants respond to longer summer days to trigger the onset of flowering can help to avoid catastrophic losses if the plant blooms too soon or too late. Using much-studied plant models such as Arabidopsis, the ‘lab mouse’ of the botanical world, researchers are investigating how genes such as FLC (flowering locus C) delay reproductive pathways over the longer nights of winter. As regional climates change, this knowledge will help farmers and breeders adapt plants to shifting weather patterns.
Protecting food during growth, storage and transit is also critical to meeting the food security agenda. Currently, a quarter of the world’s crops are lost to pests and disease. Breeding resistance into crops is one way to reduce losses. Another is to use experimental data to develop models that indicate the optimal times to use pesticides, remove infected plants, or plant pest-repelling or predator-attracting crops as part of an integrated pest management strategy.
Delivering the food security agenda will require international cross-disciplinary collaborations that integrate modern plant breeding techniques, intelligent pest management strategies, and novel methods of communication to feed the most up-to-date information to where it is most needed. Furthermore, science can provide many of the answers, but only if backed by the political will to succeed.