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Feeding the World – who pays?

Agricultural research The Economist, not noted for its bleeding heart liberal tendencies, has a special report in the February 24th issue on feeding the world. The print edition asks Should we increase spending on agricultural research?, and the website has an online poll. Unsurprisingly, in both cases, the answer is yes. The report includes an interesting account of the history of the Broadbalk field at Rothamsted Research station:

The 1.6-hectare (4-acre) Broadbalk field lies in the centre of Rothamsted farm, about 40km (25 miles) north of London. In 1847 the farm’s founder, Sir John Lawes, described its soil as a heavy loam resting on chalk and capable of producing good wheat when well manured. The 2010 harvest did not seem to vindicate his judgment. In the centre of the field the wheat is abundant, yielding 10 tonnes a hectare, one of the highest rates in the world for a commercial crop. But at the western end, near the manor house, it produces only 4 or 5 tonnes a hectare; other, spindlier, plants yield just 1 or 2 tonnes. Broadbalk is no ordinary field. The first experimental crop of winter wheat was sown there in the autumn of 1843, and for the past 166 years the field, part of the Rothamsted Research station, has been the site of the longest-running continuous agricultural experiment in the world. Now different parts of the field are sown using different practices, making Broadbalk a microcosm of the state of world farming.

Asking for more money for research (at a time when prestigious institutions such as Imperial College are sacking plant scientists right left and centre) is a no-brainer, but The Economist puts forward a compelling case which gets to the heart of both the scientific and economic issues:

By the 1990s most agricultural problems seemed to have been solved. Yields were rising, pests appeared under control and fertilisers were replenishing tired soil. The exciting areas of research in life sciences were no longer plants but things like HIV/AIDS. The end of the era of cheap food has coincided with growing concern about the prospects of feeding the world. Around the turn of 2011-12 the global population is forecast to rise to 7 billion, stirring Malthusian fears. The price rises have once again plunged into poverty millions of people who spend more than half their income on food. The numbers of those below the poverty level of $1.25 a day, which had been falling consistently in the 1990s, rose sharply in 2007-08. That seems to suggest that the world cannot even feed its current population, let alone the 9 billion expected by 2050. Adding further to the concerns is climate change, of which agriculture is both cause and victim. So how will the world cope in the next four decades?

A.J. Cann, Leicester, UK.

AJ Cann
Alan Cann is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester and formerly Internet Consulting Editor for AoB.

1 COMMENT

1 COMMENT

  1. I’d be interested to know how much the people who think “rich countries should increase spending on agricultural research” think the rich world actually does spend on agricultural research. (I know that’s convoluted, but I hope you see what I mean. This would be particularly illuminating in light of a survey that showed that Americans are not only appalled at the amount their country spends on aid, but also want it to spend 10 times more. See http://aidwatchers.com/2010/12/americans-appalled-at-how-much-we-spend-on-aid-want-to-spend-10-times-more/.

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