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BEACON Senior News

How to feed 9 billion people

Apr 26, 2023 10:20AM ● By Beth Ellikidis

The human population has just crossed the threshold of 8 billion—that’s four times greater than 100 years ago. Demographers forecast we’ll reach nine billion within the next few decades.

With more and more people, the challenge of meeting basic needs, starting with food, is mounting each year. In fact, the United Nations reports that global food insecurity has “hit new peaks” due to a confluence of crises, and signs point to things getting worse. 

But thanks to the power of science, we can mitigate contributing factors such as drought, pestilence and climate change, helping to feed humanity even as our numbers keep increasing. 

In 1929, 1.35 billion people (two-thirds of all human beings) lived in extreme poverty. By 2015, that number was down in absolute terms to 734 million—just around 10% of humanity. In 2019, the percentage of the global population classified as undernourished stood at 8.9%—a figure that, while still too high, represents tremendous progress.

At first blush, these statistics don’t seem to make sense. How can a population double twice over on a planet with scarce resources and people end up less hungry and less poor? But that’s exactly what happened, and it’s thanks to humanity’s capacity to get better at what we do.

In the 20th century, inventors and agricultural scientists ushered in the Green Revolution, a period in which new inventions and processes increased crop yields exponentially. In 1909, two German chemists invented synthetic nitrogen, a chemical key to plant growth. Instead of relying only on manure and dead plants to feed crops nitrogen, farmers now had unlimited access to inexpensive supplies at greater concentration.

Later in the century, Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, developed new breeds of wheat to control the height of the stem. Better fertilization was causing stems to grow too tall, and heavier grains were toppling the plants before harvest. The new wheat breed has tripled yields since the 1960s. Borlaug also applied his breeding technique to rice and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

Right now, the latest installment of the Green Revolution is already underway. This time, it’s not what we add to crops; it’s how we structure their genetic code to select for desirable characteristics.

Consider drought. Areas without water for extended periods of time won’t yield enough crops to feed local populations. But with the gene-editing technology CRISPR, which can “cut and paste” individual genes, scientists have added or removed genes to make such crops as corn and tomatoes require less water and withstand drier conditions. CRISPR has the potential to speed up the results from selective breeding processes that Borlaug had to spend decades to achieve. For example, snipping just one gene from rice and corn can increase yields by 10%. And it takes just one growing season to reap the benefits.

Eight billion people is a lot. But by harnessing the power of gene editing and other advanced agricultural technologies, we’ll be able to ensure everyone on the planet has enough to eat.

Beth Ellikidis is vice president of agriculture and environment at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. This piece originally appeared in Agri-Pulse.