Food security and the vegetable decathlon

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at http://nofunnybusiness.net/2014/03/food-security-and-the-vegetable-decathlon/

Scientists are tackling global food insecurity in a range of ways. They are researching crop narrowing, analysing hunger and health, connecting food risks to climate change, debating genetic engineering solutions and making a Doomsday Vault. As a scientist, I’m doing the heirloom vegetable decathlon.

Khoury et al’s recent paper on the “increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security” quantifies the global shift away from highly diverse food sources 50 years ago to a much smaller set of globally important, energy-dense foods now. The winners in the food supply race include wheat, rice, soybeans, palm and sunflower oil, potatoes and sugar and we rely ever more heavily on them. Wheat for example is now a key food in more than 97 % of countries. These narrow crop types have displaced coconut, cassava, sorghum, millet, rye and sweet potato and many more from traditional and national diets, being cheaper, easier to grow and quicker to prepare.

On the positive side, easy-to-grow, energy-dense foods have helped feed the world’s hungry people. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that total number of people who are not hungry increased from 4,370 million people in 1990-2 to 6,225 million in 2012.

Medical scientists are examining the risks. One risk is to our health. People who eat mainly energy-dense foods are at risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Crop diseases and their solutions have attracted scientific research. The southern corn leaf corn blight of 1972 and the Irish potato famine of 1846 show that crops with limited genetic variability can be highly susceptible to new disease outbreaks. Agricultural scientists are warning that with billions of people now relying on fewer food crops, new disease outbreaks could make us hungry. Crop heterogeneity is a possible solution and works by maintaining a rich gene pool through strategic interbreeding of common crops with wild cultivars. Genetic engineers are also quick to offer solutions, and transgenic plants are being developed with resistance to viruses, fungi, bacteria and nematodes. But few commercial GM cultivars are available in the short-term, and ecologists caution that over time they may bring new threats such as superweeds and toxic pesticides. GM crops they say, are at best a contentious solution to food insecurity.

But in addition to problems identified by food and health scientists, broader issues are at stake. Climate change is widely understood as an emerging, serious threat to food security. The European heatwave in 2003 and American heatwave in 2012 both reduced crop production by up to 30 % and sent prices soaring. Scientists have considered whether extra carbon dioxide and warmth could have positive food production consequences, but in 2013-4 the International Panel on Climate Change reported that negative impacts have been more common.

A Doomsday Vault in the Arctic Circle is an engineering solution to avert the risks of narrowing crop diversity. The vault now holds more than 800,000 seed samples as an “ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply”.

I’m doing my bit for crop diversity too. Gardening after all, is cheaper than the psychological interventions needed to cope with hunger, and you get tomatoes. And as well as tomatoes, potatoes, corn and the other common crops I grow rarer treats like medlars, mizuna, okra, kale, rhubarb and Jerusalem artichokes. I save seeds too, and this has led me to favourheirloom plants to enjoy and maintain old cultivars that breed true.

And why is this the vegetable decathlon? Because I’m after the elusive first prize in the coveted “Group of Ten Vegetables” category at my local Braidwood Show. Second again this year.

How are you applying science in your kitchen and garden?

One comment

  • We are playing our part in your decathlon Su, by eating the delicious produce you gave to us last week-.very delicious apples and silver beet, thank you again!

    Like

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