How We're Going to Invent New Foods to Feed the World

One of the biggest threats to our future as a species is the looming spectre of famine. With a booming population and agriculture that's already pushed to its limit, we're going to need new ways to ensure our food security. One geneticist has an idea how we'll do it, by turning new plants into crops.

Illustration for article titled How Were Going to Invent New Foods to Feed the World
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Over at Wired, Hilary Rosner has an amazing article about something we rarely think about: how to domesticate a typical plant for agriculture. Most of the plants we eat, like corn and wheat, were carefully cultivated over thousands of years by our ancestors. Many were little more than weeds before we selectively bred them to yield nice, fat grains.

As food crops become more vulnerable, some geneticists are thinking about which plants we should turn into food next. Rosner describes US Department of Agriculture geneticist Steven Cannon's quest to turn the obscure potato bean into something we eat all the time:

On this fall afternoon, [geneticist Steven Cannon's] team is harvesting tubers that resemble dark-skinned fingerling potatoes. They're called Apios americana, the potato bean—a legume endemic to North America. Native Americans gathered them and may even have served them at the first Thanksgiving. European settlers found them thriving in their cranberry bogs—places with low light, few nutrients, and bad soil. But they didn't bother domesticating them into an agricultural staple.

After a couple hours of labor, Cannon's harvest is complete. A dozen rubber bowls overflow with dirt-crusted tubers. Still, he is disappointed. "We were hoping for a little better yield," he says. "This is about average." Average is fine if you're just messing around in a kitchen garden. But Cannon is up to something far more essential. The potato bean is part of his plan for remaking our food supply from the ground up. He doesn't want to just grow Apios. He wants to turn it into a new crop that could help feed the world.

We need new crops. Thousands of years of breeding and decades of genetic modification have made the crops we sow predictable, easy to harvest, and capable of feeding more than 9 billion people. But they are also vulnerable to disease, pests, and the whims of weather. That's troubling, because global warming is bringing more disease, more pests, and more whimsical weather. On current trend lines, global wheat and soybean harvest yields could fall by nearly 30 percent by midcentury. Corn yields could drop by 7.5 percent. In the baking-hot European summer of 2003, plant growth fell by 30 percent. By 2050, that kind of summer will be the new normal. "Suppose the US breadbasket ends up with a climate like Texas," Cannon said at a genetics meeting last year. "We need to look to species already adapted to extremes."

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Read the rest over at Wired

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DISCUSSION

Agriculture is far, far from the limits of sustaining our population! I've posted these before, because io9 keeps doubling down on the myth that we're on the verge of global starvation unless we GMO everything at the grocery store:

"Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach."

Only a fraction of food wasted/lost around the world is because it's spoiled. In Britain 1/3rd of groceries purchased are not eaten, Americans throw out upwards of 33 million tons of food a year, and Singaporeans toss 20%+ of their food (they import over 90% of their food, so think of the wasted fuel), but the waste starts before the food reaches the shelf. Vegetables that don't meet arbitrary expectations of colour and shape are thrown out before they reach the grocery store. 25-30% of carrots, for example, don't make to the table because they're bendy, too thick, or not that right shade of orange (most of the world knew carrots to be shades of purple or red until a few hundred years ago). India's agriculture sector wastes 40% of fruits and vegetables, and nearly 33% of grains, because of production mismanagement and problems with supply chains and distribution.

In every single geographic area, pre-consumer agricultural waste/loss of food outnumbers consumer wastage between 2:1 to 8:1.