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Bioscience Issues

We are all committed to ending world hunger

Hartmut Schwarzbach / argus/Still Pictures/ Specialiststock.comMaking the most of what we’ve got
Wheat, maize and rice: there was a time when their ancestors only grew in the wild. Over thousands of years, however, through selective breeding, humankind domesticated them, to make them healthier and more productive.

‘We are all committed to ending world hunger,’ says Oxford University’s Professor Chris Leaver, ‘but the UN is forecasting an increase in population from 7 billion today to 9 billion by 2050. We need to double the amount of food we produce this century, all the while maintaining the vital biodiversity and ecosystems on which we depend, and in the face of decreasing water availability and a changing climate.

‘Since the 1960s, the world’s supply of food has kept up with the doubling of the human population. Much has been achieved through improved farming methods and the application of scientific techniques to the breeding of plants and animals. But our challenge is to do that again without increasing the area of land being used for agriculture.

‘Today’s science has a lot of tools that, appropriately applied, can improve many of the processes that farmers have been using for centuries. Modern plant breeding and gene technology allow us to reliably and safely breed characteristics we need into a plant, or breed out ones we don’t, in just a few years.

‘When these techniques were first developed, the emphasis was on making plants resistant to specific herbicides, allowing farmers to increase yields by controlling weeds more easily. A major success has been the launch of insect-resistant crops that improve yield and quality in cotton and maize and reduce the need for insecticidal sprays. But today we are working to breed plants that have increased yields and flourish with less water or fertilizer and have natural disease and pest resistance, reducing the need for the application of agrichemicals.

‘We’re also working to increase the nutritional value of food and reduce waste – around 40 per cent of all food grown is lost between the field and your fork. Cassava, a staple for hundreds of millions of people across Africa and Latin America, for example, is very susceptible to pests and disease; in some areas up to 80 per cent of the crop is lost. As a result, scientists are using genetic breeding techniques to introduce disease resistance, to improve cassava’s storage qualities and to increase its nutritional value by raising the levels of zinc, iron, protein and pro-vitamin A it contains while reducing the level of harmful compounds that occur naturally in the crop.

‘But not all the techniques used in the biosciences involve making changes to plants. Careful observation and analysis of the characteristics of plants – repelling some insects, for example, while encouraging other wildlife – have allowed farmers to interplant different crops, improving pest resistance and providing additional food and fodder.

‘All of us involved in the biosciences are extremely concerned to maintain, and not damage, biodiversity. It is there that we will find solutions to existing and emerging challenges. It is not enough just to maintain seedbanks – we need living, vibrant plants and communities of plants. The wonderful bounty of the natural world is what all bioscientists learn from and are dedicated to enhancing for the benefit of humankind.’

Professor Chris Leaver, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, is the Scientific Advisor to the Bioscience for Farming in Africa initiative, supported by the Templeton Foundation.

First published in UNEP’s magazine for youth, Tunza. Visit Our Planet for more information.

Tunza magazine is the United Nations Environment Programme’s magazine for youth.