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Food shortage can be averted

We must use our planet’s resources better if we are to provide food enough for everyone in the future. One of the options is to use plant breeding to achieve higher crop yields. We must also reduce food waste and apply brakes to population growth if we are to ensure sustainable food security. AU scientists are ready to supply much of the knowledge that is needed.

2014.01.09 | Janne Hansen

Increasing the efforts with regard to plant and animal breeding is one of the methods to be used to ensure food security. Photo: Janne Hansen

By 2050, the global population is expected to reach nine billion people. They all have a right to a diet that meets all their nutritional needs. We can easily grow sufficient food for all the people on the planet but the such a production may destroy our planet.

Is it an impossible task to produce food for all in a sustainable way? No, it is not, according to professor Just Jensen from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University. We just need to use the resources wisely and not be afraid of using the technological instruments available. In short, we must produce more food per hectare.

- The driver behind the problem is that an increasing human population and rising prosperity result in a growing demand for food, including meat. We only have the resources we have. There is virtually no more available land to produce food on unless we cut down the rainforests, so we must become better at using the resources we already have, says Just Jensen.

Aarhus University can supply knowledge, experience and scientists who can help solve the problems, but it must be done in large, long-term, multidisciplinary projects – and there are too few of these, according to Just Jensen.

- Aarhus University is a strong player in plant breeding, animal husbandry, food science, trade and the implementation of initiatives in developing countries. But things do not happen by themselves. We have to collaborate in an interdisciplinary manner and with a long-term objective in order to transfer the knowledge we create to practical solutions in the field, he points out.

Let animals eat grass

According to Just Jensen the challenges of securing sufficient food for all in a sustainable manner cannot be solved simply by people turning to vegetarianism or organic farming.

- It may make sense to reduce the consumption of animal food products, but it is not at all necessary that we all become vegetarians. There is certainly a loss of resources on the journey from crop to meat production. This means that the plant production is not used optimally if it has to be turned into meat before we eat it. But there are exceptions where it makes good sense to eat meat and dairy products, says Just Jensen.

The reason is that humans cannot digest grass – but ruminants can. Cows, sheep, goats and other ruminants can utilise the nutrients from the grassland. When we eat meat and dairy products from ruminants, we gain access to the nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible to us. In addition, we can also greatly improve the feed use efficiency for all our livestock.

We cannot eat hectares

Neither is organic farming the solution to the world's food supply, according to Just Jensen.

- Organic farming is an attitude to a form of production. It is not an effective way to secure food supplies since output in organic farming is 15-50 per cent lower than in conventional farming, depending on conditions. If all production were organic, we would need more arable land to grow our crops on, which we don’t have – unless we cut down more forest. This makes it an unsustainable way of proceeding, says Just Jensen. However, there are many parts of the world that could learn from organic production methods and achieve a better utilisation of the locally available resources.

If climate change continues along its current trajectory, there will even be less usable farmland in areas such as Southern Europe, Australia and many parts of the United States. On the other hand, there will probably be new areas released in the Arctic, as the tundra thaws.

In organic farming the environmental impact per unit of land is lower because the production is less intensive; in other words, there is less pollution per hectare.

- But we humans do not eat hectares, so we must instead look at the environmental impact per kilo food product produced. The environmental impact is spread over a larger area but is larger per kilo product because the yield per hectare is lower, says Just Jensen.

Better plant varieties

We need to improve productivity within the areas we already have. Although Danish farmers already cultivate the land intensively and efficiently, Denmark can increase its production by utilising the land even more efficiently. And we can transfer much of our expertise to other countries.

- There are many options available to us here. AU is in a strong position in terms of knowledge and research in these areas, says Just Jensen.

Scientists from Aarhus University have, for example, contributed for many years to the breeding of plants and animals that utilise nutrients better. In addition to achieving higher yields, it also reduces the discharge of nutrients to the environment.

Another option is to use improved crop varieties and species. The farmers could, for instance, replace more barley with maize in the diet for pigs. Maize is more digestible and contains 12-15 percent more digestible energy than barley. In recent years we have developed new varieties of maize that are more cold-tolerant. This means that maize has become more popular in Denmark, although there are several challenges in harvesting it.

Turbo on breeding

According to Just Jensen you should not for reasons of principle eschew using special technologies or production methods ? but they should also make sense.

- Genetically modified crops can be used in cases where they are not harmful to the environment, biodiversity, or the like. Even so, I think there have been surprisingly few successes with GMOs in the past 20 years, says Just Jensen.

With genetic modification you are concentrating on the relatively few genes that affect individual traits. A property such as yield is genetically much more complex. Here you cannot just add individual genes by "copy-pasting" them in. Instead, you can take advantage of a combination of molecular techniques and traditional selection of the best candidates as parents for the next generation.

Traditional plant breeding combined with new molecular techniques can boost the genetic advance quite considerably, and here the research at Aarhus University is right at the forefront, using – among other things – genomics and molecular techniques to understand the genes regulating properties such as productivity and resistance to disease. However, the development must not languish here.

- There is an urgent need to understand what it is we actually affect at the molecular and biological level when we make a selection. There is still a strong need for research in genetics and physiology, says Just Jensen.

Too much food is wasted

Another area that could contribute to food security is less waste of food.

- There are losses in all parts of the production chain. In Denmark, a third to a quarter of all the food produced end up as waste. Already in the store a lot of the food will be discarded because it exceeds the sell-by date. At the consumers much of the food we buy is thrown out without being used, says Just Jensen and continues:

- In developing countries, households do not throw food away. All items purchased are eaten – they cannot afford otherwise. On the other hand, some of it is lost in the production chain because of poor storage and transport conditions. There is strong need for research into how we can reduce food waste.

 

Too many people

Although we may be able to improve the efficiency of the production per unit area, we cannot do so indefinitely. The number of consumers should also be reduced.

- A key prerequisite for being able to produce enough food for all is that population growth is slowed or even reversed. This must be done by ensuring economic development. Families that have financial security and economic opportunities prioritise differently and typically have fewer children. For such development to be successful, political recognition is required, but scientists in areas such as political science and anthropology can help influence the development. We should not force this kind of family structure onto people, but create communities where it happens by itself.

United front and long-term commitment required

To ensure there is sufficient food for all requires a multifaceted course of action at global level. To provide research-based knowledge to support such development, Aarhus University needs to focus on several aspects in a strong coordinated effort.

- We are faced with a complex problem that requires comprehensive and long-term interdisciplinary collaboration. The players are there, but the work is not coordinated well enough. There must be a deliberate strategy and a long-term, multidisciplinary commitment in the area in order to achieve the desired effect. The project should seek to build relationships, understanding and knowledge. AU should take the initiative to create this collaboration, which could have implications for international development.


Contact: Professor Just Jensen, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, e-mail: Just.Jensen@agrsci.dk, telephone: +45 8715 7546, Mobile: +45 4082 1680

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