Feeding the World – Everywhere I Turn the Page (update)

This past weekend I spent a bunch of time cleaning my office.

Some people are triggered to renew & reorganize by the start of a new year, or the transition from winter into spring. For me, it is the beginning of a new school year that triggers my ‘get organized’ impulses. Even when I was a kid and should have HATED ‘back to school’, I loved getting organized, packing my supplies, and preparing for a new year. So even though the weather still says the dog days of summer, I cleaned my desk top of extra files & tackled one or two of my reading piles (do they breed & multiply at night?) with sincerity.

The first set of articles that I read were from the July 29th issue of Nature, which includes a special feature of articles under the title of “Can Science Feed The World?” I didn’t log into my subscription before reading the articles, so I believe full access to Nature Features is free, but I could be wrong. The editorial “How to feed a hungry world” summarizes the articles in the special issue and interested me enough to keep reading the other articles. In “Food: The growing Problem” I learned a lot of things, including that some of my default assumptions about the reasons for food shortages may not be valid. I also learned that the world’s agricultural research budget is a fraction (just 5%) of its disease research budget – that doesn’t sound like enough to me (though I’m not sure where to find more money for it…)

I liked the writing style of the “Food: Inside the hothouses of industry” it was interesting & easy to read. The author also made me aware of a switch in philosophy of major seed developers such as Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Syngenta. I knew that they had been developing all sorts of expression systems and genetic modifications that allowed their plants to be resistant to their pest- and herbicides. I didn’t notice that they had switched towards developing strains more resistant to environmental conditions. This makes global sense to me, but does seem to need a modified business plan – I’ll be interested to see how this progresses.

Having participated in a few soybean nodule harvests myself (which I found full of manual labor with no guaranty of a mother load of knowledge, or even nodules) the article on root research, “Food: An underground revolution” was great news & an interesting read. I can see why roots aren’t the easiest thing to study, but would have thought there was a lot of research already accomplished. Even as an amateur gardener I can see plant prognosis is directly correlated with root structure. “Food: the global farm” was also an interesting read. I applaud Brazil’s efforts & successes.

I next was turning the pages of the Science July 23rd issue & noticed an editorial entitle “Escalating Threat of Wheat Rusts“. It paints a somewhat scary picture, especially with the levels of research funding reported in the Nature article. Several years ago now I attended an SBIR writing conference & in the hotel bar I heard a grant reviewer talking to a researcher. She pointed out that every major disease with NIH funding also probably had funding from the USDA & although the USDA’s budget was MUCH smaller than NIH’s, so was the number of their grant applicants. These articles make me wonder if that is still true, or whether plant research is coming to the forefront again.

Update, 8/24/19: I just received my copy of “Hybrid – The History & Science of Plant Breeding” by Noel Kingsbury, which I bought based on the review in Science by Alan Bennett & am anxious to begin it. I’ll let you know what I think as I progress through it.