From Seeds to Sows, Scientists are Adapting Food Supply to Climate Change: Part 1

Stephen DeAngelis

October 23, 2014

“When a team of researchers from the University of Delaware traveled to Africa two years ago to search for exemplary chickens,” writes Evan Halper (@evanhalper), “they weren’t looking for plump thighs or delicious eggs. They were seeking out birds that could survive a hotter planet. The researchers were in the vanguard of food scientists, backed by millions of dollars from the federal government, racing to develop new breeds of farm animals that can stand up to the hazards of global warming.” [“Scientists race to develop farm animals to survive climate change,” The Los Angeles Times, 3 May 2014] Justin Gillis (@JustinHGillis) reports that another cadre of scientists from the University of Illinois is studying crops and “the type of damage that could put a serious dent in the food supply on a warming planet.” [“Testing Future Conditions for the Food Chain,” The New York Times, 22 September 2014] Each year, it becomes a little more obvious that weather patterns are changing. How those changes are going to impact food security should be a concern for every living being on the planet. And, according to a new study, there are going to be a lot more of us by the end of the century. A new study concludes, “Contrary to previous literature, world population is unlikely to stop growing this century. There is an 80% probability that world population, now 7.2 billion, will increase to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion in 2100.” [“World population stabilization unlikely this century,” by Patrick Gerland, Adrian E. Raftery, Hana Šev?íková, Nan Li, Danan Gu, Thomas Spoorenberg, Leontine Alkema, Bailey K. Fosdick, Jennifer Chunn, Nevena Lalic, Guiomar Bay, Thomas Buettner, Gerhard K. Heilig,and John Wilmoth, Science, 18 September 2014]

 

In part one of this two-part series on how scientists are working to ensure future food security, I’m going to set the stage for why researchers are working so diligently on this challenge and how they are going about it. In the second part of the article, I’ll discuss what they are doing in more detail. Feeding that number of people is going to be a challenge if weather patterns stabilize. If those patterns continue to change, the agricultural sector is going to need all the help it can get to address global food security. Eric Orts (@EricOrts) and Joanne Spigonardo (@spigonaj), professors at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, remind us that this isn’t the first apparent food security crisis the world has faced. “In 1968,” they write, “Paul Ehrlich began his bestselling book, The Population Bomb, by asserting that a rapidly expanding population was dooming the human race to mass starvation. ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over,’ he wrote. ‘In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.’ Ehrlich was right about the population explosion. Between 1960 and 2000, the number of people on the planet doubled, from three billion to six billion. Yet, while hunger persisted in much of the world, Ehrlich’s dire prediction of mass starvation did not come true. On a global scale, food production kept pace with population growth.” [“Can Big Data Feed the World?Knowledge@Wharton, 12 September 2014] As the title of their article implies, they suspect that Big Data analytics will have a role to play in the food security saga that currently confronts us.

 

Orts and Spigonardo explain that food production was able to keep pace with population growth because of the so-called green revolution that dramatically increased global food production. The downside of the green revolution, they write, was the significant and detrimental impact it had on the environment. “Extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides polluted waterways and killed beneficial insects; irrigation practices reduced groundwater reserves; and monoculture farming led to a wide range of problems, including a growing dependence on even more pesticide and fertilizer.” If we are to meet the challenge that lies ahead, we need another green revolution; but one without devastating environmental impacts. That’s exactly what scientists, armed with Big Data and other tools, are trying to accomplish. Orts and Spigonardo were the principal authors of a report entitled “Sustainability in the Age of Big Data,” which details the results of a conference sponsored by Xerox and Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL). Their overall conclusion from the conference was, “The future looks promising.” That’s welcome news. With governments around the globe doing little to regulate activities that can affect weather patterns, scientists are doing their best to mitigate the impacts such activities are exacerbating.

 

At the University of Delaware, “Carl Schmidt and his colleagues are trying to map the genetic code of bizarre-looking African naked-neck chickens to see if their ability to withstand heat can be bred into flocks of U.S. broilers. ‘The game is changing since the climate is changing,’ Schmidt said. ‘We have to start now to anticipate what changes we have to make in order to feed 9 billion people,’ citing global-population estimates for 2050. Warmer temperatures can create huge problems for animals farmed for food. Turkeys are vulnerable to a condition that makes their breast meat mushy and unappetizing. Disease rips through chicken coops. Brutal weather can claim entire cattle herds.” Damage to plants can be just as devastating to plants as to animals. Gillis reports that there are only “a handful of places in the world where researchers are trying to mimic the growing conditions expected to arise decades in the future as the air fills with heat-trapping gases and other pollutants from human activity.” What researchers have discovered, Gillis writes, is not encouraging. “Earlier this year, for instance, researchers at Harvard and elsewhere pooled data from the Illinois project with findings from scientists in three other countries. In a high-profile paper, the experts reported that crops grown in environments designed to mimic future conditions have serious deficiencies of certain nutrients, compared with crops of today.”

 

Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, told Halper, “We are dealing with the challenge of difficult weather conditions at the same time we have to massively increase food production [to accommodate larger populations and a growing demand for meat].” Alan Miller, who recently retired as a principal climate-change specialist at the World Bank, agrees with Secretary Vilsack that something needs to be done, but he told Halper that “the U.S. Department of Agriculture approach to climate change ‘is like trying to promote driver safety while helping the car industry make faster cars.'” As I’ve pointed out in past articles, there are no silver bullet solutions to global food security. A wide variety of strategies are going to have to be implemented and every stakeholder in the food supply chain, from farmers to consumers, is going to have to help. In the final part of this article, I’ll discuss how scientists are doing their part.