Earth’s exponentially growing population is a
“wicked problem” at the root of every major issue
plaguing Earth today, Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National
Institute of Food and Agriculture, said at a thought-provoking
presentation March 6 in the Center for the Arts.
Ramaswamy used the term “wicked problem,” coined in
1973 by German industrial engineer Horace Rittel, to describe a
predicament where the path to progress is blocked because
superficial disagreements or political infighting prevent the best
technology available from coming to the rescue.
Earth’s population hit 7 billion on Halloween night last
October, and it is on a trajectory to surpass 9 billion by the year
2050, according to Ramaswamy. Unless research leads to new
discoveries to increase food production, current land and water
constraints mean that sustaining a population of 9 billion would
require two additional Earths.
Agricultural competitiveness—or making farms more
efficient—is another problem adding to our inability to feed
the planet, according to Ramaswamy. The average age of the American
farmer is 60 years old, according to a recent census.
Issues such as poverty, energy, water and health can be met head
on by reforming our food system and improving our agricultural
competitiveness,. Ramaswamy said.
Ramaswamy laid out the four challenges we must solve to create
enough food for the world’s population without wreaking havoc
on the environment: overcoming “biotic and abiotic”
constraints, reducing food waste, improving our farming system and
enacting sensible governmental policies.
One example of a biotic constraint is the lack of diversity in
our food. Although there are 50,000 edible plant species, we are
only eating between 15 and 50 of them. For example, research could
find ways to grow and harvest other crops besides corn, wheat and
rice that could feed large numbers of people.
Ramaswamy said solutions must come from taking an
interdisciplinary approach and “crowdsourcing” ideas, a
concept that encourages experts from many different backgrounds to
work together to find a “game-changing” or
Organized by UB’s Office of the Vice President for
Research and Economic Development, the title of Ramaswamy’s
talk, “Setting the Table for a Flatter, Hotter, More Crowded
Earth,” is inspired by Thomas Friedman’s 2005
bestseller “The World is Flat,” which argues that
globalization in the 21st century is driven by technological