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USDA official discusses problem of feeding 9 billion people

Corn is a major factor in the current global food crisis

Published March 11, 2013

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.

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.
Sonny Ramaswamy, Director
National Institute of Food and Agriculture

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 “transformative” approach.

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 advances.