Feeding People With Science: Plant Researchers Brace for Population Explosion

By 2050, the world will require nearly twice as much food as today. But producing it without consuming any extra resources — so as not to exacerbate climate change — will be tricky. Three scientists explain how this agricultural feat may be possible.

By Julia Merlot

Rice fields terraced of Tule, YenBai, Vietnam rice; mu; cang; terrace; fields; plant; ecology; terraces; grows; terraced; earth; horticulture

July 11, 2019

If the progress of the last 60 years had to be depicted in only four figures, this is what they would be: In 1960, global agriculture produced an average of 200 kilograms (around 400 pounds) of grain for each person on the planet. Today, it has risen to 400 kilograms. At the same time, the global population has risen from 3 to 7 billion.

These statistics reveal a miracle of sorts: Though the number of people on the planet has doubled in the past six decades, the amount of food per capita has also increased. The percentage of people around the world who are currently suffering from hunger, 11 percent, marks a record low. Never before in the history of humankind has our collective abundance been so high.

Thousands of scientists across the planet are working to turn the extraordinary into reality. They are pursuing new ideas and methods to conquer hunger once and for all in the 21st century. Whether or not they will succeed remains to be seen. Indeed, they face a tremendous challenge.

Global Population Growth
Estimated population from 1950 to 2015, followed by forecasts (low, medium and high) for birth rates until 2100.



UN World Population Prospects 2017

The global population continues to rise. By the middle of the century, it could reach 10 billion people, according to forecasts. The United Nations (UN) has calculated that between 2050 and 2070, twice as much food will have to be produced than now. Yet the conditions for this are worse than they were during the Green Revolution several decades ago.

The fact is, in order to avoid exacerbating climate change, the amount of cultivated land should not increase. No new piece of rainforest should be cleared to make way for new fields, according to the UN’s plan. Every additional calorie must, therefore, be created on existing fields and pastures. It may sound counterintuitive, but according to the UN, in order to produce food sustainably in the long term, more intensive agriculture will be needed.

New technologies may offer a way out of this dilemma, helping farmers to bridge the gap between high yields and environmentally friendly processes. Three scientists provide examples for how this could be achieved:

Donald Ort wrote his doctoral thesis about plants’ biochemical processes. Today, he is a professor at the University of Illinois. According to an evaluation by the firm Clarivate Analytics, he is one of the most influential researchers worldwide.

Rebecca Bart heads a group of researchers at the private, non-profit Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis and specializes in plant diseases that can destroy entire harvests.

Jean-Michel Ané has a PhD in cell and molecular biology and is a professor at the University of Wisconson-Madison. His focus is on understanding symbiotic relations between plants and microbes that could replace fertilizer.



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