Monday, June 15, 2015

The Future Frontier of Agricultural Science

Last December, I was honored to attend the Japanese-American Frontiers of Science symposium in Tokyo, Japan. Frontiers of Science symposia (FoS) are organized by the U.S. National Academies of Science, the Kavli Institute, and leading science organizations from around the world – in my case, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The symposia are designed to bring together young researchers from a wide variety of fields, which offers scientists the opportunity to learn the state of the art work being done in other areas and network across the typical boundaries of expertise. In my case, I was the only planetary scientist at a symposium of about 70 participants, and the range of topics included the mathematics and applications of origami, development of a new standard by which we define the kilogram, and the human microbiome. Although jam packed, the sessions were very stimulating and generated great discussions both during and outside of the sessions.
"Any time you do something new in origami, you have to make a bunny."

A little microbiome humor to lighten the mood.
The session I was most looking forward to was Climate Change and Food Security. I hoped the session would focus on agricultural methods that enhance crop resiliency and require fewer resources. The talks began with an overview of the many ways climate change will continue to challenge our abilities to grow food, as well as the growing concern over so-called “hidden hunger”, the widespread lack of nutritious food so severe that it impairs normal growth and function of human beings. An estimated 2 billion people suffer from malnutrition, and poor nutrition is responsible for 45% of deaths of children under 5 [1][2]. The speakers all acknowledged that it is lack of nutrition that will be the next big problem facing humanity. However (and somewhat inexplicably), they then focused on methods of producing “a bigger pile of corn”. That’s right, the session was all about the successes of biotechnology at developing more productive crop varieties.

Quantity vs. Quality

After the talks, the participants asked many critical questions about the biotech approach to food security such as its economic viability in poor countries and issues with soil degradation and water usage. What bothered me the most was that the speakers said nutrition is, and will continue to be, our biggest challenge, but the biotech advances they described do not address nutrition at all. In fact, in the US, most genetically-modified crops (especially corn and soy) are made into food additives and sweeteners, like corn syrup and soy lecithin, rather than actual food. In poorer parts of the world, as one of the speakers pointed out, even industrial-grade corn is used as a food – served as something like porridge. While still largely devoid of nutrition, at least corn does supply edible calories for the very poor.

After the session, I approached two of the speakers* to ask more about the challenges of nourishing the world. The first person I talked to often works in Africa and knew a lot about the particular hardships for poor farmers. She agreed that a good approach to creating nutrition security (rather than caloric security) would be to focus on crops that are inherently nutritious. Whether through changes in agricultural methods, selective breeding, or gene splicing between species, creating more resilient nutritious crops – think lentils and kale rather than corn and soy - must be part of the solution. Unfortunately, the speaker could not think of any researchers currently working on enhancing the yields or the sustainability of nutritious food.

She also pointed out a potential flaw in my analysis of the caloric needs of different countries, which was based on population studies by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In that study, the caloric needs of a population are determined by age and sex demographics. However, occupation is not taken into account. Farmers, day laborers, or women who trek tens of miles a day for clean drinking water are afforded the same caloric requirement as a typical person, but their actual needs are much higher. Even a person getting 1800 calories a day may be nearly starving because of the exertion required for their daily life. One of the findings of my study was that almost all countries, even those with 30-50% of their populations being classified as food insecure, actually had enough calories to feed everyone. However, based on this new information, it seems likely that income inequality means the poor not only have less access to those calories, they also need more than the FAO has estimated because of the hardships of poverty. In that case, having more available calories could, hypothetically, reduce food insecurity, but only if the impoverished people within the country can actually get more food. And, of course, none of this addresses the availability of nutritious food.

A Culture of Condescension

My discussions with the next speaker were much more troubling. When I broached the subject of growing or breeding more nutritious crop varieties for use in poor countries, he said it wouldn’t be effective because the people in those countries wouldn’t eat the food. They have a culture of non-nutritious foods, he said, using rice as an example. Better to engineer staple crops like corn and rice to have more nutrients and let the poor eat what they like.

I found this attitude, frankly, appalling. The idea that poor people can’t recognize the value of a diverse, nutritious diet is insulting. Assuming that impoverished people in southeast Asia eat a diet of mostly rice because that is their culture neglects the role that poverty has played in restricting diet diversity over time. While the diversity of traditional diets is something I will need to learn more about, it seems unlikely that the nutrient deficiencies currently causing widespread blindness and stunted growth throughout poor populations have been present throughout their histories. In any case, people living in extreme poverty deserve better than to have their nutrition slipped into their rice like parents of a stubborn toddler hiding vegetables in their kid’s pasta sauce.

Another Seat at the Table

The issue of population growth came up many times throughout the session and side conversations throughout the symposium. Because population is increasing, proponents of biotechnology will say that we need to produce more calories even if they are not nutritious. Otherwise, people will starve. There are two problems with this approach. First, as long as the population continues to increase, food production will always have to increase to keep pace. Maybe we can keep squeezing our resources and reducing the nutritional quality of our food to produce more calories, but this seems like a race to the bottom. The other problem is that people need more than calories. It sounds unconscionable to let people starve, but is it any more ethical to give people just enough calories to survive knowing that the lack of vitamin A, for example, will lead to blindness and death? In my opinion, there is no point in creating more calories if we cannot produce nutritious calories because lack of either is too often a death sentence.

In addition to researching nutrition-based approaches to food insecurity, slowing population growth is critical to a sustainable food future. As one speaker pointed out, the advances of biotechnology are not expected to outpace the pressures of population growth on the food supply – not by a long shot. Luckily, the methods for slowing population growth are known. Lift people out of poverty, and they have far fewer children. This is especially true for women because impoverished women have so few opportunities. Becoming a wife and mother is their only value within a society. When women are educated and have access to jobs and careers outside the home, they have a source of economic stability that gives them more freedom to choose when and whether to have children, and they usually choose to have fewer children overall.

Nourishing the world is a harder and more critical long-term problem then feeding the world, but that is the actual problem facing humanity. Producing more calories that are not nutritious or raising crops in ways that degrade or deplete vital resources are false solutions. We need to focus on developing sustainable agricultural practices that produce more nutritious food. We also need to empower the poor, especially women, to both slow population growth and reduce the extra caloric burdens of poverty. This is the true frontier of science, a worldwide humanitarian effort, and a moral imperative.

*Although the names of the speakers are available on the internet, I’m withholding them here because some of what I describe stemmed from side conversations rather than their talks. It’s possible that I misunderstood their comments or that they would have provided more context in a different setting. In any case, I have tried to describe our interactions as best as I can remember them.