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Will 9 billion humans put us in Mordor or the Shire?

Written by Jillian Lang, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Cell and Molecular Biology Graduate Program and lab manager of The Jan E. Leach Lab

Plenty of scientists, economists and think tankers are talking about the 9 billion people question, or the ‘9BPQ’. Our population is predicted to plateau in 2050 with 9 billion humans. That is a lot of bodies to provide water, food, shelter and clean air for. Is it possible? I’m not sure.

Dr. H.C.J. Godfray, University of Oxford professor, and his coauthors (2010) say it is possible, with a multifaceted and linked global strategy that can ensure sustainable and equitable food security. My favorite component of their optimism is reducing waste. Dr. John Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, another prolific writer on food security, agrees. In this blog post, he talks not only of changing diets to increase our food supply by 28%, but also about reducing food wasted. Think about it, if you collected all the mashed potatoes people didn’t finish on Thanksgiving, you could feed several villages in Africa the mountains of nutritious mash. After working in agriculture and studying plant pathology for many years, I’ve become fascinated by the disparity we humans have about understanding the sources of what sustain us and the dire threats to these sources we face and will leave for our children to tackle in the years to come.

Dr. Foley spoke about sustainability at an event hosted by the School of Global and Environmental Sustainability here at Colorado State University last month. While sitting in the audience too shy to ask my question, I began to consider local versus global food movements and how that relates to food security. It’s an intricate balance. What can we do today? How? If I don’t order a steak at this restaurant am I really making a difference? If I choose to buy this locally grown lettuce over that shipped from Mexico, am I contributing to global sustainability and securing our food supply? It feels like the answer is no, but really it is yes. If we consider all the small decisions made worldwide, the collective impact is ultimately a comprehensive change.

My research group works with Oryza sativa, known commonly as rice. This is a power house staple crop that feeds half of our world and an ancient, global food religion. Rice is intensively grown with several cropping cycles per year and it produces a significant amount of agricultural waste. A giant focus in our research is sustainably managing the pests and pathogens that threaten this simple, yet life sustaining plant. Tapping into the inherent tolerance to disease available in diverse wild varieties for introduction into those that are grown year after year is a sustainable approach to combating evolving microbes, and it will lessen the need for chemical applications for management, but more importantly, yield losses. Essentially, breeders can take advantage of what these plants already have to offer.

Growers are and will continually be faced with decisions to change their cropping systems, their seeds, their management strategies and their resource allocations. Our research involves molecular diagnostics, microbiology, molecular biology, plant physiology, genetics, genomics and transcriptomics to help understand from the smallest to the largest level how these different kingdoms interact in a rice system. Opportunities for sustainable production also exist in making use of crop residue that is otherwise wasted in a very pollutant-heavy way, most commonly by burning directly in the field. A viable option to dealing with this waste is to use gasification. Gasification is a closed system that would bring a value added commodity in the form of energy to fuel downstream processes, like milling. The question is, will growers be willing to transport their leftover stems and leaves down the road to support this operation? Would it be cost effective for them? This scenario could be applied to many annual cropping systems, especially those where several crops are consecutively produced in one year. Another beauty in working with rice is that it is a simple grass. It is heavily studied so many research tools are available, such as a complete genome sequence and a multitude of invested researchers worldwide. Due to the nature of evolution, many of the traits people are interested in for bioenergy, such as cell wall structure, are highly conserved among plants. By taking advantage of rice as a model, research can quickly advance to optimize systems for not only sustainable food production, but reducing wasted crop residue and using it for bioenergy. So much like reducing that amount of consumed food wasted, creative approaches to reducing waste in all steps of agricultural productions should be explored.

It’s easy to feel far removed from the people and environments we’re working to help, since no one grows rice for hundreds of miles from my lab bench or our tropics-simulating greenhouses. However, much like the lettuce dilemma, we know our work locally does affect the global movement towards sustainable crop production and that our results can be readily translated to other food crops. This solution sounds straight forward when simply written in a blog. But what is perhaps most frightening in the sustainable food security challenge is climate change. Weather extremes and natural resource abuse trigger complications in microbial and agricultural ecology. The phytobiome (a new ‘ome’, meaning the microbes that hang out, for better or for worse, on plants above ground) is a diverse and complex environment that is sensitive to even single degree changes in temperature. Rice isn’t going anywhere; it has been around as a staple crop for centuries. So when I ponder my career and my own decisions around food security, I think there is a balance. We can make choices locally to support our growers up the street and tend our own little plots of land, but research and decisions we make around our food supply can influence our neighbors across the world.

Dr. Foley so accurately describes the absolute power agriculture has over our environment, our society, our diet, our governance and our day to day lives. Agriculture is like the economic ‘Sauron’ of plants and animals followed by reliant humans. It has to be a priority for sustainability studies. If our population is set to reach 9 billion by 2050 AND people are going to live longer, food security is not an option, it is a necessity otherwise, our planet may shift from looking like the Shire to Mordor.

Literature Cited:

Godfray, H.C.J., Beddington, J.R., Crute, I.R., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J.F., Pretty, J., Robinson, S., Thomas, S.M. and Toulmin, C. 2010. Food Security: The challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science. 327:812-818.








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