On the front page...
It's not every day that you go to a session on the
NIH campus and hear about melting ice in Greenland, population
growth trends and international markets. But that's exactly what
attendees heard at the recent STEP forum "Food for Thought: Sustaining
the Global Population." The health of a growing world population
is going to depend on strong cooperation between many different
Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, led off
with a wide-ranging talk that provided a framework for the forum.
While the world's population continues to grow, he said, world
grain stocks are now at about their lowest level in 30 years. Two
major challenges to meeting the growing demand in the coming years
will be falling water tables and rising temperatures.
Underground aquifers are recharged by precipitation, but many
nations are pump-ing their aquifers faster than they're being recharged.
Half the world's people now live in countries where water tables
are falling, Brown said, yet few governments seem to be paying
attention. "What's happening in Asia today with water is very similar
to what happened in Africa with the HIV virus 15 years ago."
||Lester Brown addresses STEP forum.
Rising temperatures will also strain food production, Brown explained.
The Earth's average temperature is clearly rising, and heat interferes
with crop production, particularly with the pollination process.
For each degree Celsius rise in temperature above the norm during
the growing season, Brown said, there is a 10 percent decline in
But it's more than just the direct effect of temperature that's
important. Brown explained that when sea ice in the Arctic melts,
less sunlight gets reflected back into space and the sea absorbs
more heat. "That is important," he said, "because of its effect
on Greenland and the enormous amount of ice in Greenland." If that
ice melted, it would raise the sea level 23 feet, Brown argued.
That would not only inundate many of the world's coastal cities;
it would also inundate many of the rice-growing areas in Asia.
Brown said that economic trends are placing an additional strain
on world food production. Using water to expand industrial output
can yield a return up to 70 times greater than using it to produce
grain. Industrial development creates a more profitable use for
cropland as well. It also draws people from the countryside and
away from labor-intensive farm work. This is what happened in Japan,
he explained, and more recently in China, accounting for recent
drops in grain production there.
Dr. Joel E. Cohen, who heads the Laboratory of Populations at
the Rockefeller and Columbia universities, followed Brown's talk
by explaining global population trends in more detail. We can expect
to add 2.6 billion more people to the world by 2050, he said. In
comparison, the entire population of the Earth was only 2.5 billion
in 1950. This works out to one city of a million people added each
week for the next 45 years.
But while population growth is a problem, Cohen said, starvation
and malnutrition are caused by more than just population growth.
In fact, the world population growth rate peaked between 1965 and
1970 and has fallen by one-third from its high. The world now produces
more than enough to feed everyone alive today an adequate diet.
Cohen reviewed the famine in Sudan in the 1990s as a specific example
that people have interpreted as a population problem. "Does Sudan
have a population problem?" he asked. Many other countries have
been able to deal with their explosive population growth. Cohen
described a range of environmental problems, crop management failures,
market failures, and various political and cultural factors that
all contributed to the famine in Sudan. "To look at this as a population
problem alone misses the complexities," he said. "Population problems
intersect with the environment, economics and culture."
|Speakers at the recent STEP seminar
on sustaining global population were (from l) Lester Brown, Dr. Rebecca Nelson, Rajul
Pandya-Lorch and Dr. Joel E. Cohen.
Cohen pointed out that the demands of food production from a growing
global population create health problems beyond producing and distributing
enough food. "You can think of the human species as embedded in
a food web of relationships with the species that it eats and the
species that eat it," he explained. The species that eat us now
aren't so often lions and tigers anymore, he said, but infectious
diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and schistosomiasis.
One of his research interests is Chagas disease, which currently
infects millions in South and Central America. People in Argentina
keep chickens in their bedrooms to protect them from predators,
Cohen explained. Insects feed on those chickens and also bite people
and dogs, transmitting the parasite that causes Chagas from dogs
to people. "There's a close connection between the food production
and the infectious disease."
Another example of this connection is avian influenza in Asia,
which has been of global concern recently. "The taking away of
wetlands for rice lands," Cohen explained, "meant that migratory
wild fowl had to use rice fields for their stopovers and defecated
into the water, transmitting avian influenza to domestic fowl." People
then catch the disease from their domestic fowl. "So there's such
an intimate connection between what we eat and what eats us," he
said. "We can't get away from that connection."
Cohen explained how factors beyond having enough food affect the
health of a growing world population. Dr. Rebecca Nelson, program
director for the McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research
Program, took up the topic by describing the recent shift in mentality
in the international agricultural research community. Until recently,
she explained, researchers were focused mostly on producing more
food. They are now asking, "Is it really production that we're
trying to achieve or is it healthier children?"
Nelson said there's been a shift from production- oriented research
toward nutrition-oriented and livelihood-oriented research. She
gave as an example a project in East Africa to address vitamin
A deficiency. Breeding sweet potatoes to be rich in vitamin A yet
culturally acceptable was a serious challenge. "People don't necessarily
love the fact that you've just turned their staple crop orange," she
said. But when research programs are combined with nutrition education,
they can effectively improve the health of the people they are
"You need an integrated approach if you want to make a change," Nelson
said. "We ignore culture and preference at our own peril." In this
case, she said there was an impressive collaboration between the
agriculture, health and religious sectors. "They find that it's
acceptable to turn their food orange if and only if they understand
that it's good for their children," she explained.
Nelson gave many other examples of research programs guided by
local and regional challenges. Traditional breeding techniques,
newer transgenic technologies and other innovations like rotating
crops throughout the growing season are all being employed to increase
food security in areas with poor soils and harsh environmental
Rajul Pandya-Lorch of the International Food Policy Research Institute
rounded out the session by outlining the economic challenges to
food security. Availability of credit and access to markets are
just as important to food security as increased food production,
she explained. Health is also a major factor. "Health, agriculture,
poverty and hunger go hand in hand," she said.
Pandya-Lorch argued that while the world has focused on HIV/AIDS,
malaria and tuberculosis are also devastating health crises; even
less acknowledged are those health conditions that don't lead to
mortality but sap people's health. "Chronically ill people are
people who cannot take advantage of whatever technological advances
you provide to them," she said. "You cannot blame people for being
poor and food-insecure if you don't also address the health issues," she
stressed, thus highlighting NIH's role in this picture.
The speakers described creative ways that researchers and policy
makers are addressing the problems they had described. Pandya-Lorch
spoke about the renewed international focus on investments in education,
social services and infrastructure. Nelson spoke about farmer participation
in a range of research programs, both to improve local crops and
to find creative ways to bring new crops into stressed areas. Brown
described innovative dairy marketing cooperatives in India, efficient
beef production methods in China and an ingenious method of aquaculture
that has significantly boosted China's output in an efficient,
environmentally friendly way.
Pandya-Lorch stressed, "There is nothing that prevents us from
being food secure if we put our will to it and our resources to
She observed of the effort in Africa, "You're finally beginning
to see a critical mass of people from various sectors engaging
in these issues. It is not just little pockets anymore." The research
communities, policy communities, media and various civil groups
are all working together to combat hunger and poverty, she said. "And
that gives me more hope than I've ever had before."