Scientists at MSU warn of global food crisis
It’s hard for Americans, who have such plentiful food, to imagine that the world could face a tremendous food crisis in the next generation, but prize-winning scientist Gebisa Ejeta is worried.
“We all are,” Ejeta said at Montana State University, where the Board of International Food and Agricultural Development is meeting Thursday and Friday.
Ejeta, a Purdue University professor and director of Purdue’s Center for Global Food Security, won the World Food Prize in 2009 for developing a strain of the food grain sorghum that can tolerate drought and parasitic weeds in Africa.
Originally from Ethiopia and standing at a striking 6-foot-7, the 64-year-old scientist was one of several experts from around the nation speaking on food security.
The world population reached 7 billion people in 2011, and by 2050 it’s expected to reach 9.5 billion, Ejeta said.
The danger is that the world would have to produce at least 40 percent more food to feed nearly 40 percent more people. Yet as incomes rise in places like China, people eat more meat, which requires more grain production. At the same time, some grains are being diverted from food to make biofuels.
So by 2050, Ejeta said, the world may actually have to produce 70 to 100 percent more food than today.
“It would be a tall order, a very difficult challenge,” he said.
The past century’s solutions that kept food production on pace with population growth – clearing more land for cultivation, using more fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides, and more water – may no longer work.
“We are concerned that if we continue to use these at a high level, the water gets contaminated and the water table goes down,” Ejeta said. “We need more science so we can produce more food with less input — learn from the mistakes of the past.
“It’s not our food security I’m worried about. It’s the food security of the next generation, our children and grandchildren.”
What’s needed, he said, are more state and federal government investment in agriculture, education, science and research, and a wider recognition of the seriousness of the problem. Ejeta said that rather than scaring young people about the food problem, he tries to present it as an opportunity to work in a field that’s important.
Ejeta developed his prize-winning sorghum to help African farmers fight a scourge called striga. The noxious weed is a parasite that kills corn and sorghum plants and can wipe out 100 percent of farmers’ crops. Each plant produces hundreds of thousands of seeds. Once an infestation starts, farmers are forced to abandon their fields.
“They call it a curse,” Ejeta said. “It is so severe, they call it a curse from above.”
But scientific research discovered that striga seeds won’t germinate without three things – moisture, warmth and a chemical compound given off by the host plant. If striga germinates, then it cannot attach to the host plant and send out rootlets without a second chemical compound from the host plant. Ejeta said scientists learned to intercept the chemical compounds that signal the start of striga’s growth.
Seeds from his sorghum are now planted in several African countries. When he has visited farmers, others will tell them that he’s the man who developed the striga-resistant plant.
“You can see the awe they feel,” he said, “and they express their gratitude very warmly.”
MSU President Waded Cruzado was appointed by President Barack Obama to the six-member Board for International Food and Agricultural Development. It advises the U.S. AID program on ways that universities can achieve its agricultural goals. On Friday morning at 8:45 a.m. in the Strand Union Building Ballroom A, Cruzado will moderate a panel of Montana tribal college presidents on food issues. At 11:15 a.m., a panel of MSU experts will discuss enhancing food security.
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