Among the many pressing challenges faced by the world, few are greater than ensuring there is enough food for a population that is growing fast.
There are currently 7.6 billion people worldwide, a figure forecast to rise as high as 12bn by the end of this century.
Researchers and officials wrestled with how science and technology can help to meet rising food demands on the second day of the World Science Forum 2017 at the Dead Sea in Jordan.
“World population will stabilise in 2070 or 2080, but before then, sustainable food security is a huge challenge,” said Joachim von Braun, a professor for economic and technological change at the Centre for Development Research in Germany,
Chief among current concerns is the world's high level of food inequality, according to Vladimir Sucha, a director in the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, which carries out scientific research to inform policy.
“We still have 850 million people who are suffering from hunger or who are food insecure. We have enough food on the planet, but the food is not distributed evenly,” he told delegates at a session entitled, “Science and Food Security: How to Feed the World Sustainably and Equitably.”
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There are, he said, two billion suffering from some form of malnutrition, even if not all of these people go hungry, yet there are also two billion who are obese.
Where researchers from diverse fields agree is that there is no “silver bullet” to solving food security issues. Instead, a string of measures need to be taken.
Improving productivity, such as through using plant breeding and advanced methods of genetics, is one.
Von Braun said reducing food wastage is also important. As much as 25 to 30 per cent of food is wasted during, for example transport and preparation. In the EU, an average of 128kg of food is wasted per person per year, a figure that rises to as much as 180kg in some EU nations.
Other factors cited by Von Braun included ensuring land use was sustainable, in terms of preventing soil from becoming degraded and not over-utilising water resources, and making food markets more efficient, something that academic research can help with.
He described the Arab world as facing “serious deficits” in its institutional capabilities, posing challenges in ensuring appropriate policies are applied. Africa faces similar difficulties, according to Professor Sarah Agbor, the African Union commissioner for human resources, science and technology, and it is part of the reason why the continent lags significantly in agricultural production.
Cereal production in Africa is less than 1.5 tonnes per hectare, compared to a world average of 3.8 tonnes. There is, said Prof Agbor, an “urgency” to upgrade to higher technologies, which are already available.
“Why is the majority of Africa still living in hunger? Why have the many years of scientific research in Africa not yielded the ultimate measure of progress? Why are our capabilities still underutilised?” she asked.
“Most Africans continue to work in rural areas with outdated tools with very little input from science between the farm and the fork. This all leads to low productivity.”
However, upgrading farm technology and changing from subsistence agriculture to commercial operations – according to UN figures, 95 percent of farmers in Benin, for example, use subsistence techniques – brings with it risks.
Subsistence farming can offer a “paradise” for farmers who grow food to feed their own family, according to Professor Jacqueline McGlade of University College London, but when they switch to growing commodity crops, and the prices of those crops fall, they can become unable to buy enough food for themselves.
She said “combinatorial science” that draws upon such diverse fields as geology, social sciences and anthropology was needed. Former UN World Food Programme executive director Ertharin Cousin, now a distinguished lecturer at Stanford University, echoed this.
“There are no silver bullets to solving these problems. It will require a multitude of multidisciplinary activities, [it] will [require] us getting out of our silos to address these issues,” she said.