This was the question posed by Nature’s Special last week. In other words, how can we feed the Earth's growing population in such a way that no-one goes hungry and nature is left with some land and water of its own? Their answer can be broadly summed up by what Britain’s Royal Society call “sustainable intensification of global agriculture”. Their three main proposed strategies are increased use of GM crops, selective breeding and informed land use choices.

The Editor writes:
“There is an urgent need for new crop varieties that offer higher yields but use less water, fertilizers or other inputs – created, for example, through long-neglected research on modifying roots – and for crops that are more resistant to drought, heat, submersion and pests. Equally crucial is lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste.”

The articles in this Nature Special argue that “unjustified and impractical legal requirements are stopping genetically engineered crops from saving millions from starvation and malnutrition”; they highlight the potential of breeding for deeper, faster-growing roots; and they explain the importance of generating greater yields using less water, fertilizer, pesticides and land, rather than increasing the area of cultivated land.

Shade-grown coffee An article by Jeffrey Sachs et al. calls for a global data collection and dissemination network to track the myriad impacts of different farming practices. This would allow more informed choice of land so that farmers can get more for less. For example, success has already been seen in Brazil where despite rising food production, Amazon deforestation plunged to a historic low last year. The soya bean industry has started using satellite images to work out which areas are best for more intensive growing, taking into account issues such as the volume of water available and what else needs it. This shows that farming doesn’t always have to have negative impacts on natural ecosystems and biodiversity. As another example, a study published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that shade-coffee farms support native bees that enhance the fecundity and genetic diversity of remnant native trees.

As well as modification of crops and informed land selection, another method of increasing food production is through improving farmers knowledge of crop protection to reduce losses to pests and diseases. This is something that CABI has been doing for 100 years since its beginnings as an entomological committee in 1910. We’re now on the verge of a rapid expansion in the number of CABI plant clinics around the world and creation of a central knowledge bank through the production of Plantwise.
Plant clinic Nepal The plant clinics are staffed by trained ‘plant doctors’ who help farmers find solutions to their crop health problems. The results are impressive and immediate: a recent impact assessment in Bolivia has shown farmers benefiting by $4/day from the plant doctors’ advice – and all this with no extra use of land, water, fertilizers or chemicals. The knowledge bank will include a powerful early warning vigilance system to help in the fight against pests and diseases. Plantwise will capture data about new pests and diseases from scientists, published sources, official bodies and validated plant clinics records, and map this information with greater detail than ever before.

So can science feed the world? There’s definitely the potential for a lot of improvement in yields without further adverse impacts on natural ecosystems. Whether we can gather the funding to pay for all this new research and dissemination of the resulting information is another matter, but we’ll certainly try!

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