WARMING global temperatures and an expanding population are making further innovation in food production a necessity, according to a new report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and the London School of Economics (LSE).
The broader effects of climate change require development of comprehensive strategies that transform socioeconomic systems in hopes of feeding 9 billion people by 2050.
"Feeding the Planet in a Warming World," a report released earlier this month, argues that policy-makers and industry leaders must focus on advancing research and development (R&D) of plant and animal genetics and new agricultural practices to address the challenge of feeding more people in a changing climate.
The report's authors called for policy reforms to dramatically increase government investment in agricultural R&D as well as significant changes in the regulatory framework necessary to increase the use of genetically modified (GM) foods.
"Our international agricultural innovation infrastructure is grossly underfunded and too focused on near-term challenges and current technologies," ITIF senior fellow Val Giddings said. "The system, as it is today, will not deliver the agricultural technologies necessary to address the severe climate impacts we face."
Giddings said the report calls for global investment in agricultural research to triple and specifically advocates for an additional focus on genetic research to develop new crop varieties with improved yields and resistance to stress.
"The world requires more productive crops that have built-in means for withstanding extreme heat, cold, rain and drought, as well as better mechanisms to quickly disseminate these technologies across the globe," LSE research fellow Mark Caine said. "Our policy recommendations will assist in creating the robust, well-funded global innovation infrastructure that is central to achieving this goal."
As critics assail GM foods in the developed world, namely in the U.S. and Europe, the report's authors argue that the global regulatory framework for these products must be reformed to encourage further adoption of GM food technologies.
The report notes that many countries ban GM foods out of hand and that others -- including the U.S. -- require "unjustified testing and oversight" that increase costs and delay market access.
Essentially, the report says policy-makers should create uniform regulatory standards that focus on the safety and nutritional value of the product -- not on how it was produced.
According to the report, three key realities underscore the challenge: The world population is growing toward 9 billion people by 2050 at a time when the middle class is expanding and climate change is increasing the volatility and severity of extreme environmental conditions. The surest, most proven way of producing more food per acre while combatting these meteorological extremes is development and widespread adoption of biotech crop varieties, it asserts.
This expanding middle class adds another dimension to the well-established challenge of feeding a growing global population. One expert, speaking at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) earlier this month, said the issue is often overlooked.
"Providing enough food to prevent starvation and famine certainly will be a daunting problem, but we also have to meet the rising expectations of huge numbers of people who will be moving up into the middle class," said Ganesh Kishore, chief executive officer of the Malaysian Life Sciences Capital Fund and co-organizer of an ACS symposium on energy, food and water.
The emerging middle class "will demand food that doesn't just fill the belly but food that's appetizing, safe and nourishing, convenient to prepare and available in unlimited quantities at reasonable prices," he added.
Kishore said feeding a middle class that will number more than 5 billion people within 30 years will put a strain on existing technology for clean water, sustainable energy and other resources. He noted that most of this new middle class will reside in Asia and will have a purchasing power of more than $60 trillion by 2040.
In the same spirit as the ITIF report, Kishore said regulatory policy must keep pace with technological development and encourage rapid diffusion of innovation around the globe. Plant biotechnology, in specific, should be viewed as a way of more efficiently converting sunlight into chemical energy and, thus, more food.
Editor's Note: This is part 2 of a two-part series focusing on the changes necessary to feed a growing global population. Part 1 appeared in the April 15 edition of Feedstuffs.