October 27th, 2016 / Claudia Canales, B4FA

This periodic blog will discuss food security, with a specific focus on how plant genetic research might contribute to addressing the challenge of feeding a fast-growing global population in increasingly uncertain climatic conditions.

Achieving food security is a complex problem that goes far beyond just producing more food. Its realisation will require deep transformations of food systems, and for many, it will also mean fundamentally changing our relationship with food.


MAP 1: The world in 2016
population cartogram of the most recent population estimates (7.6 billion) in which each country has resized according to its total population. By 2050 there may be 9.7 billion people living in our world.
(Source: UN Wold Population Prospects;
The problem …
Access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food is considered a fundamental human right. In 2015, the world’s nations adopted Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The second of these aims at “Zero Hunger: to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. The goal’s targets make specific reference to people in vulnerable situations, living in poverty, women and children – stunting due to malnutrition remains a pervasive problem in many parts of the world. The goal also sets the objective of doubling the productivity and income of small-scale food producers, and establishing sustainable food production systems and resilient agricultural practices.This is an ambitious task. Two main challenges lie ahead: predicted changes in global population – there will be an estimated 9.7 billion people living in the world in 2050 – and the effects of climate change, which are already compromising agricultural production.Unfortunately, the parts of the world predicted to experience the most dramatic increases in population growth, Africa and South Asia, are also the ones that are likely to experience the greatest rise in average annual temperatures.

MAP 2: Predicted temperature change, 1960-1990 to 2070-2100
(Source: The Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change [The Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change];

In April 2016, 174 countries and the European Union adopted the Paris Agreement, committing them to trying to keep the global temperature rise to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further 1.5°C”.

Achieving Zero Hunger will require producing more food: there will be nearly one more third of mouths to feed. What’s more, this will have to be achieved with dwindling land and water resources, increased urbanisation and increased uncertainty in climatic conditions. And since agriculture is responsible for almost a quarter of greenhouse emissions, productivity increases need to occur in parallel with a reduction of these emissions.

To meet the food requirements of the world’s population, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that global yields will need to increase by 60% by 2050 to meet future demands:

For maize, soybean, rice and wheat which, which are all key staple crops that are traded internationally the increase of production needed are respectively 67, 55, 42 and 36 per cent respectively.


However, a limitation of considering the enormous task of achieving global food and nutrition security as a “yield gap” problem is that only one part (admittedly a crucial part) of food systems are taken into account. There are several reasons to believe that simply growing more will not solve the situation, but potentially exacerbate the problem.

1. The world produces enough food today, yet almost 800 million people
do not have enough to eat

The main cause of food insecurity today is poverty: poor people cannot afford to regularly access sufficient amounts of nutritious food they need if they are to have active and productive lives. Part of the solution for future food security is to have a more equitable society, and with that, a fairer distribution of food. Of course it will also be necessary to produce more food, especially in places where it will be needed most.

Poverty eradication is both a specific SDG (SDG1) and implicit in several others, since its different dimensions include the lack of access to basic services and opportunities, such as clean water; clean and sustainable energy; health; and education and economic opportunities for both men and women. Effectively, sustainable development requires an integrated approach.

Plant breeding initiatives targeting smallholder farmers in developing countries have started to take a value chain approach, mindful that increased productivity needs to be translated into increased income to have a positive impact in the household.

2. Fully one third of all food is wasted

Figure 1: Food waste
Global food waste is estimated to be 1.3 billion tonnes per year, about a third of all food produced.


Of the food wasted, according to the World Bank, around 56 per cent is in the developed world, and  44 per cent in the developing world. However, while most of the food in developing countries is lost in the field to pests and diseases and due bad weather conditions, and before it reaches the market (due to poor storage conditions), in developed countries most of the food is wasted after it has reached the consumer – thrown away in homes, supermarkets and restaurants.

While plant genetics can be harnessed to improve resistance to pests and diseases and cope better in adverse climatic conditions, cutting food waste also requires food to be more valued in affluent countries/by affluent parts of the society. Food waste is increasing, as is now recognised as a serious problem.

Producing more food without addressing this issue will likely lead to more waste.

3. There are now more overweight and obese people than undernourished ones

Overweight and obesity, caused by an excessive consumption of calories and a lack of physical activity, are linked to an increase in the incidence of diet-related non-communicable diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The 2014 WHO Global status report on non-communicable diseases showed that these are the most common cause of death worldwide: they were responsible for 68 per cent of all deaths globally in 2012, up from 60 per cent in 2000. Cardiovascular diseases, which have eight diet related risk factors, account for most of these deaths – 17.5 million people annually – followed by cancers (8.2 million), respiratory diseases (4 million), and diabetes (1.5 million).

Up to 80 per cent of cases of coronary heart disease and up to 90 per cent of cases of type 2 diabetes could be avoided through changing lifestyle factors (mainly by improving diet and exercising more).

Almost three quarters of non-communicable disease deaths – 28 million – occur in low- and middle-income countries. Paradoxically, excessive weight and obesity are often linked to malnutrition in terms of micronutrient deficiencies. It disproportionally hits low-income social groups who attain most of their calories from cheap sources of carbohydrates and sugars.


Dr Claudia Canales Holzeis is a plant molecular biologist with a near-decade of experience in plant genetics research.  She previously worked as Senior Project Officer for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), based in the Philippines.  A graduate of the University of Reading in Environmental Biology, Dr.Canales gained a DPhil. in Plant Genetics at Oxford.