Nearly ten billion people will walk the Earth by 2050, and for some of the poorest and fastest growing countries, that could mean a bleak and hungry future. Dr Josef Schmidhuber of the FAO and CSHL Professor David Jackson explain what has gone wrong, and how delving into the mysteries of plant genetics can help.
Extras for Episode 4:
Sharing the Earth in Numbers
Today, an estimated 7.3 billion people are sharing the Earth’s land, water, and food. Each year, we have to share 196.9 million square miles of land, 326-million-trillion gallons of water (although only a portion of it is accessible), and 4 billion tons of food produced for human consumption (not including animal feed).
Forget, for a moment, that the average American eats nearly one TON of food annually. THAT’S a discussion for nutritionists. However the FAO assures us that as things stand, there IS enough food to go around, and what’s more, there is likely to be enough in the coming decades.
The Urban Beef Burden
The trouble then is distribution. In our podcast, Josef and Dave raise concerns about the rising popularity of meat-heavy, westernized diets. Josef explained to us that this is largely due to the rise and growth of cities in developing countries. Nearly ALL future population growth (into 2100) is expected to be urban.
Increased demand for on-the-go, meaty meals, will put greater pressure on limited resources. Consider, for example, that cows require up-to 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigated water than other livestock.
Meanwhile, the rural farming communities expected to support these new and demanding cities have not grown as much, and perhaps have even shrunk. In some cases, new generations have even left the fields for modern jobs and an urban lifestyle.
Urbanization can be very good for a developing world, as cities serve as international trading hubs that can expose a country to new ideas and varied or even healthier diets. However, if a country doesn’t have the resources to push its way into international food trade – as Josef says is the case with Niger – what’s left is an insatiable food demand that quickly outstrips local supply.
Figuring out the Fieldwork
Increasing crop yield, as we’ve discussed, can help soften the impact of a growing urbanized world, but plant scientists have to work tirelessly to make a difference.
Dave says that during growing seasons, he’ll spend up to 6 days a week in his fields, tending the crops, searching for mutants, and performing crosses. We met him in one of these fields late last July to find out which labors-of-love keep him coming back.
That day, he was preforming some self-crosses, which help ensure that inbred lines remain that way. Why is this important? Check out Episode 2 to learn more. Dave was kind enough to demonstrate a cross and let us try our own!
So how is it done? During flowering seasons, the tassels of a corn plant (the male part) are covered with bags, which are then stapled shut. Each bag fills with grainy anthers and – more importantly – pollen.
Later in the season, Dave will revisit these bags and that is when the crossing process begins: