BBC News
August 25, 2009

Faced with the threat of a booming population going hungry in a warming world, there is quiet confidence among many researchers that technology can provide solutions, reports the BBC’s environment correspondent, David Shukman.

The warning of a "perfect storm" is partly intended to focus attention on the positive role that science can play – and to galvanise politicians to support it.

There is a glimpse of that potential at the Rothamsted plant research centre in Hertfordshire, where 160 years of experiments have repeatedly boosted the key feature of crops – their yield.

During a visit to the centre’s experimental plots and carefully managed greenhouses it is hard to miss the sense of optimism that research can offer answers.

That is partly the result of Rothamsted’s long history.

Back in the 1850s, a typical wheat field would produce about one tonne of grain per hectare, compared with a typical British field that now yields about nine times that.

So the challenge is to find ways of boosting output in the world’s biggest producers, China and India, where yields are between one-quarter and one-third of the British level.

Dwarf wheat

Currently there is a potentially catastrophic imbalance between the world’s people and the food they need. Roughly 50% of the population lives in areas where there is only 30% of the arable land.

One technique that has transformed productivity is the breeding of so-called "dwarf" varieties – traditionally most of a wheat plant’s energy goes into growing a long stem rather than nurturing the vital grains that are needed.

Following dwarf wheat out of the lab and into the field are plants that are better at resisting drought or more efficient at using scarce nutrients.

Does Professor Peter Shewry, acting director of Rothamsted, think it’s possible that a global population of 8 billion could be fed, in just 21 years’ time?

"Yes", he says, "it is definitely doable".

But though many of the technologies exist now, much depends on finding ways of transferring them.

Local conditions, a lack of finance, and regional cultures could all have an impact on how readily the modern techniques are exploited.
Awkward choices

Most controversial is the question of whether to harness the controversial science of genetic modification (GM) – the transfer of genes to enhance a particular attribute.

The scientists at Rothamsted make no secret of their preference for GM to be explored as an option.

Professor Keith Goulding, head of soil studies, says yields can be boosted without GM, but would be enhanced far more rapidly with it.

"We’d like it considered more sensibly because it has the potential for controlling pests and disease virtually without using chemicals at all.

"It is frustrating that GM is not more acceptable. We don’t have to put more exotic genes across the species barrier – it can be just about using genes from other plants."

So, in the countdown to the UK chief scientist’s warning of a "perfect storm" in 2030, society will be forced to confront some awkward choices: science may have answers but will people want them?