Population Boom Tests Food Supply

How’s your garden growing? You might want to check.

The world’s population is predicted to swell from 7.5 billion to near 10 billion over the next 30 years. If the food supply is to meet demand, production is going to have to get much better or there are going to be a lot more people going hungry.

Such was the theme of “Plant Science Research for Global Food Security,” a recent panel discussion in Washington, D.C., organized by the U.S.-Japan Research Institute. No more than 10 people showed up to hear the four plant experts. But recognition that what we eat doesn’t come from computer downloads seems to be increasing, witness the 1,300 people attending the 10th annual Rooting DC horticulture conference at a city high school.

The four speakers in the small conference room of a downtown office building focused on technological innovation. Jocelyn K.C. Rose, a Cornell University plant biologist, said what’s needed is another “green revolution,” referring to the famous boost of the mid-1900s. Norman Borlaug ramped up wheat production with new farming methods that leveraged plant breeding, pesticides and fertilizers. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. But Rose said those grain gains have leveled off.

Rose said a simmering brew of challenges await — from changing climates and water shortages to expanding urbanization and errant food supply management.

A “mosaic” of approaches will be needed, not just new technology, he said. He noted a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization finding that about one-third of food produced for human consumption every year is wasted. “If you’re throwing away food, you’re throwing away water,” Rose said.

Like other places, Japan faces specialized circumstances. The country produces about 40 percent of its own food, relying substantially on imports from China and the United States, said Hiroshi Ezura, a life and environmental sciences professor from the University of Tsukuba, outside of Tokyo. He said the country wants to boost its food self-sufficiency. But contrary to the global trend, Japan’s population is dwindling. Ezura said the population is aging, with 60 being the average age of farmers, a number anticipated to rise.

New ways of agricultural automation are in his sights. Ezura highlighted a just-begun research initiative in greenhouse engineering. The work involves sensors that detect various growing conditions and metrics like sugar levels in fruit, with delegation of mechanical duties to robotic arms that carry out tasks guided by artificial intelligence. He said that researchers want to meet people’s desire for food that is high quality and affordable.

Plant breeding is nothing new, but getting plants to conform to demands has put their genetics are under more intense scrutiny. Itay Gonda, an Israeli postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University, said he has been studying tomato DNA, looking for places along the strand that express such features as flavor and fragrance. Tohru Ariizumi, a faculty colleague of Ezura’s, described efforts to insert desired genetic codes into targeted sections of DNA.

Gonda said researchers have been tapping into the genes of wild tomato plants from places like Peru to test their influence on domesticated varieties. He said that increasingly less expensive DNA sequencing is bringing demand for ever-more powerful means of cataloging and processing data.

New crops are in the pipeline. In Rose’s native England, in February 2017, the government-funded Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council announced a “potential breakthrough” with a broccoli plant that goes from seed to harvest in 8-10 weeks, reducing dependence on seasonality.

© 2017 John A. Bray