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Meeting the Food Needs of a Growing World Population
Volume 14, Number 27: 6 July 2011

Parry and Hawkesford (2010) introduce their study of the global problem by noting that "food production needs to increase 50% by 2030 and double by 2050 to meet projected demands," and they note that at the same time the demand for food is increasing, production is progressively being limited by "non-food uses of crops and cropland," such as the production of biofuels, stating that in their homeland of the UK, "by 2015 more than a quarter of wheat grain may be destined for bioenergy production," which surely must strike one as both sad and strange, when they also note that "currently, at least one billion people are chronically malnourished and the situation is deteriorating," with more people "hungrier now than at the start of the millennium."

So what to do about it: that is the question the two researchers broach in their review of the sad situation.

They begin by describing the all-important process of photosynthesis, by which the earth's plants "convert light energy into chemical energy, which is used in the assimilation of atmospheric CO2 and the formation of sugars that fuel growth and yield," which phenomena make this natural and life-sustaining process, in their words, "a major target for improving crop productivity both via conventional breeding and biotechnology."

Next to a plant's need for carbon dioxide comes its need for water, the availability of which, in the words of Parry and Hawkesford, "is the major constraint on world crop productivity." And they state that "since more than 80% of the [world's] available water is used for agricultural production, there is little opportunity to use additional water for crop production, especially because as populations increase, the demand to use water for other activities also increases." Hence, they rightly conclude that "a real and immediate challenge for agriculture is to increase crop production with less available water."

Enlarging upon this challenge, they give an example of a success story: the Australian wheat variety 'Drysdale', which gained its fame "because it uses water more efficiently." This valued characteristic is achieved "by slightly restricting stomatal aperture and thereby the loss of water from the leaves." They note, however, that this ability "reduces photosynthetic performance slightly under ideal conditions," but they say it enables plants to "have access to water later in the growing season thereby increasing total photosynthesis over the life of the crop."

Of course, Drysdale is but one variety of one crop; and the ideal goal would be to get nearly all varieties of all crops to use water more efficiently. And that goal can actually be reached by doing nothing, by merely halting the efforts of radical environmentalists to deny earth's carbon-based life forms -- that's all of us and the rest of the earth's plants and animals -- the extra carbon we and they need to live our lives to the fullest. This is because allowing the air's CO2 content to rise in response to the burning of fossil fuels naturally causes the vast majority of earth's plants to progressively reduce the apertures of their stomata and thereby lower the rate at which water escapes through them to the air. And the result is even better than that produced by the breeding of Drysdale, because the extra CO2 in the air more than overcomes the photosynthetic reduction that results from the partial closure of plant stomatal apertures, allowing even more yield to be produced per unit of water transpired in the process.

Yet man can make the situation better still, by breeding and selecting crop varieties that perform better under higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations than the varieties we currently rely upon, or he can employ various technological means of altering them to do so. Truly, we can succeed, even where "the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of substantially reducing the world's hungry by 2015 will not be met," as Parry and Hawkesford accurately inform us. And this truly seems to us the moral thing to do, when "at least one billion people are chronically malnourished and the situation is deteriorating," with more people "hungrier now than at the start of the millennium."

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Reference
Parry, M.A.J. and Hawkesford, M.J. 2010. Food security: increasing yield and improving resource use efficiency. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 69: 592-600.