Abolishing Hunger

The scientific community can play an essential role in providing the tools for humanity to satisfy its moral imperative to feed the hungry.

The first of the Millennium Development Goals, which were adopted by the world’s leaders at the United Nations in 2000, was a promise to fight poverty and reduce the number of the hungry by half by 2015, from 850 million to 425 million hungry souls on this planet. Shame on us all! By 2008, the figure had actually risen to 950 million and is estimated to reach 1 billion in a few years.

It is inconceivable that there should be close to a billion people going hungry in a world as productive and interconnected as ours. In the 19th century, some people looked at slavery and said that it was monstrous and unconscionable; that it must be abolished. They were known as the abolitionists, and they were motivated not by economic self-interest but by moral outrage.

Today the condition of hunger in a world of plenty is equally monstrous and unconscionable, and it too must be abolished. We must become the new abolitionists. We must, with the same zeal and moral outrage, attack the complacency that would turn a blind eye to this silent holocaust, which causes some 40,000 hunger-related deaths every day.

As we celebrate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln, the founder of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Great Emancipator, it behooves us to become these new abolitionists. Lincoln said that a house divided cannot stand and that a nation cannot survive half free and half slave. Today, I say a world divided cannot stand; humanity cannot continue living partly rich and mostly poor.

Our global goal should be that all people enjoy food security: reliable access to a sufficient quantity, quality, and diversity of food to sustain an active and healthy life. Most developed countries have achieved this goal through enormous advances in agricultural techniques, plant breeding, and engineering schemes for irrigation and drainage, and these advances are making a difference in developing countries as well. The Malthusian nightmare of famine checking population growth has been avoided. Global population has grown relentlessly, but many lagging societies have achieved a modicum of security that would have been unthinkable half a century ago. India, which could not feed 450 million people in 1960, is now able to provide the food energy for a billion people, plus a surplus, with essentially the same quantities of land and water.

Still, much more needs to be done. Achieving global food security will require progress in the following areas:

  • Increasing production to expand the caloric output of food and feed at rates that will match or exceed the quantity and quality requirements of a growing population whose diets are changing because of rising incomes. This increase must be fast enough for prices to drop (increasing the accessibility of the available food to the world’s poor) and be achieved by increasing the productivity of the small farmers in the less-developed countries so as to raise their incomes even as prices drop.
  • Such productivity increases will require all available technology, including the use of biotechnology, an approach that every scientific body has deemed to be safe but is being bitterly fought by the organic food growers’ lobby and various (mainly European) nongovernmental organizations.
  • Climate change has increased the vulnerability of poor farmers in rain-fed areas and the populations who depend on them. Special attention must be given to the production of more drought-resistant, saline-resistant, and less-thirsty plants for the production of food and feed staples.
  • Additional research is needed to develop techniques to decrease post-harvest losses, increase storability and transportability, and increase the nutritional content of popular foods through biofortification.
  • Biofuels should not be allowed to compete for the same land and water that produce food for humans and feed for their livestock. We simply cannot burn the food of the poor to drive the cars of the rich. We need to develop a new generation of biofuels, using cellulosic grasses in rain-fed marginal lands, algae in the sea, or other renewable sources that do not divert food and feed products for fuel production.
  • Because it is impractical to seek food self-sufficiency for every country, we need to maintain a fair international trading system that allows access to food and provides some damping of sudden spikes in the prices of internationally traded food and feed crops.
  • The scientific, medical, and academic communities must lead a public education campaign about food security and sound eating habits. Just as we have a global antismoking campaign, we need a global healthy food initiative.
  • And we need to convince governments to maintain buffer stocks and make available enough food for humanitarian assistance, which will inevitably continue to be needed in various hot spots around the world.

New technologies to the rescue

No single action is going to help us solve all the problems of world hunger. But several paths are open to us to achieve noticeable change within a five-year horizon. Many policy actions are already well understood and require only the will to pursue them. But there are a few more actions that will become effective only when combined with the development of new technologies that are almost within our grasp. Critical advances in the areas of land, water, plants, and aquatic resources will enable us to take a variety of actions that can help put us back on track to significantly reduce hunger in a few short years.

Land. Agriculture is the largest claimant of land from nature. Humans have slashed and burned millions of hectares of forest to clear land for farming. Sadly, because of poor stewardship, much of our farmland is losing topsoil, and prime lands are being degraded. Pressure is mounting to further expand agricultural acreage, which means further loss of biodiversity due to loss of habitat. We must resist such pressure and try to protect the tropical rainforests in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This set of problems also calls for scientists to:

  • Rapidly deploy systematic efforts to collect and classify all types of plant species and use DNA fingerprinting for taxonomic classification. Add these to the global seed/gene banks and find ways to store and share these resources.
  • Use satellite imagery to classify soils and monitor soil conditions (including moisture) and launch early warning campaigns where needed.
  • For the longer term, conduct more research to understand the organic nature of soil fertility, not just its chemical fertilizer needs.

Water. Water is life. Humans may need to consume a few liters of water per day for their survival and maybe another 50 to 100 liters for their well-being, but they consume on average about 2,700 liters per day for the food they consume: approximately one liter per calorie, and more for those whose diet is rich in animal proteins, especially red meat. At present, it takes about 1,200 tons of water to produce a ton of wheat, and 2,000 to 5,000 tons of water to produce a ton of rice. Rainfall is also likely to become more erratic in the tropical and subtropical zones where the vast majority of poor humanity lives. Floods alternating with droughts will devastate some of the poorest farmers, who do not have the wherewithal to withstand a bad season. We absolutely must produce “more crop per drop.” Some of what needs to be done can be accomplished with simple techniques such as land leveling and better management of irrigation and drainage, but we will also need plants that are better suited to the climate conditions we expect to see in the future. Much can be done with existing knowledge and techniques, but we will be even more successful if we make progress in four critical research areas:

  • First, we know hardly anything about groundwater. New technologies can now map groundwater reservoirs with satellite imagery. It is imperative that an international mapping of locations and extent of water aquifers be undertaken. New analysis of groundwater potential is badly needed, as it is likely that as much as 10% of the world’s grain is grown with water withdrawals that exceed the recharge rate of the underground reservoirs on which they draw.
  • Second, the effects of climate change are likely to be problematic, but global models are of little help to guide local action. Thus, it is necessary to develop regional modeling for local action. Scientists agree on the need for these models to complement the global models and to assist in the design of proper water strategies at the regional and local scales, where projects are ultimately designed.
  • Third, we need to recycle and reuse water, especially for peri-urban agriculture that produces high-value fruits and vegetables. New technologies to reduce the cost of recycling must be moved rapidly from lab to market. Decision-makers can encourage accelerated private-sector development programs with promises of buy-back at reliable prices.
  • Finally, the desalination of seawater, not in quantities capable of supporting all current agriculture, but adequate to support urban domestic and industrial use, as well as hydroponics and peri-urban agriculture, is possible and important.

Plants. Climate change is predicted to reduce yields unless we engineer plants specifically for the upcoming challenges. We will need a major transformation of existing plants to be more resistant to heat, salinity, and drought and to reach maturity during shorter growing seasons. Research can also improve the nutritional qualities of food crops, as was done to increase the vitamin A content of rice. More high-risk research also deserves support. For example, exploring the biochemical pathways in the mangrove that enable it to thrive in salty water could open the possibility of adding this capability to other plants.

Too much research has focused on the study of individual crops and the development of large monoculture facilities, and this has led to practices with significant environmental and social costs. Research support should be redirected to a massive push for plants that thrive in the tropics and subtropical areas and the arid and semiarid zones. We need to focus on the farming systems that are suited to the complex ecological systems of small farmers in poor countries.

This kind of research should be treated as an international public good, supported with public funding and with the results made freely available to the poor. Such an investment will reduce the need for humanitarian assistance later on.

Aquatic resources. In almost every aspect of food production, we are farmers, except in aquatic resources, where we are still hunter-gatherers. In the 19th century, hunters almost wiped out the buffaloes from the Great Plains of the United States. Today, we have overfished all the marine fisheries in the world, as we focused our efforts on developing ever more efficient and destructive hunting techniques. We now deploy huge factory ships that can stay at sea for months at a time, reducing some species to commercial extinction.

We need to invest in the nascent technologies of fish farming. There is some effort being made to promote the farming of tilapia, sometimes called the aquatic chicken. In addition, integrating some aquaculture into the standard cropping techniques of small farmers has proven to be ecologically and economically viable. The private sector has invested in some high-value products such as salmon and shrimp. But aquaculture is still in its infancy compared to other areas of food production. A massive international program is called for.

Marine organisms reproduce very quickly and in very large numbers, but the scientific farming of marine resources is almost nonexistent. Proper farming systems can be devised that will be able to provide cheap and healthy proteins for a growing population. About half the global population lives near the sea. Given the billions that have gone into subsidizing commercial fishing fleets, it is inconceivable that no priority has been given to this kind of highly promising research. Decisionmakers must address that need today.

Science has been able to eke out of the green plants a system of food production that is capable of supporting the planet’s human population. It is not beyond the ken of scientists to ensure that the bounty of that production system is translated into food for the most needy and most vulnerable of the human family.

Science, technology, and innovation have produced an endless string of advances that have benefited humanity. It is time that we turn that ingenuity and creativity to address the severe ecological challenges ahead and to ensure that all people have that most basic of human rights, the right to food security.

Most of the necessary scientific knowledge already exists, and many of the technologies are on the verge of becoming deployable. It is possible to transform how we produce and distribute the bounty of this earth. It is possible to use our resources in a sustainable fashion. It is possible to abolish hunger in our lifetime, and we need to do so for our common humanity.

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Cite this Article

Serageldin, Ismail. “Abolishing Hunger.” Issues in Science and Technology 25, no. 4 (Summer 2009).

Vol. XXV, No. 4, Summer 2009