There's food in abundance, but it's not getting to the hungriest


Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 5:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 5:33 p.m.

Every day, 4,600 calories worth of food are produced for each person on the planet — far more than the recommended 2,000-calorie-a-day diet — and yet, at least one billion people in the world are nutrient deficient.

Professor John Ingram of Oxford University presented this startling statistic on Tuesday, the first day of a two-day conference at the University of Florida titled "Sustaining Economies and Natural Resources in a Changing World."

"We're obviously growing a huge amount of food, but we're not able to consume it," Ingram said.

And half of the food waste in the developed world takes place post-production, while in the developing world, the waste comes in the fields — mostly because of pests or harmful weeds or inefficient distribution.

While bridging that gap poses questions for agronomists and economists alike, the issue of making food production more safe and efficient is one that Ingram and other speakers on Tuesday addressed.

Professor Fred Kirschenmann of Iowa State University said that 70 percent of the world's water is used for agricultural production, but "we can't continue doing that."

To amend the situation, Kirschenmann said we need to restore both the biological health of soil — virtually ignored for the past 50 years — as well as the biological and genetic diversity of species that live in the soil.

While many people think of soil as just dirt, Kirschenmann said, one tablespoon actually contains a half billion microorganisms that if left alone to feed on organic matter help create more porous, better soil.

"Soil is a really intense living community. There's more beneath the ground than above it," Kirschenmann said.

But getting farmers to appreciate and preserve that diversity instead of diminish it with pesticides is part of the challenge of modern-day farming, Kirschenmann continued.

What's happened in a state like Iowa, for example, which produces much of the country's corn and soybeans, is that those crops constitute 92 percent of the state's cultivated land. Pest control to ensure high yields of those crops may be effective in the short term, but ultimately bugs develop resistance to pesticides, and the chemicals kill other insects in the meantime, ultimately reducing biodiversity.

In the long term, a more salient approach is growing a diversity of crops and decreasing excess fertilizer and pesticide usage, Kirschenmann said. Studies have shown this to be effective: Introducing alfalfa to land normally reserved for corn and soybean actually increased production of the mainstay crops without damaging the soil with unnecessary chemicals, Kirschenmann said. "At least we know it's possible," he said.

But farmers in Iowa still ask "What can I do with alfalfa?" he said.

There is some evidence that food production has gotten more efficient over the past several decades. David McClary, the senior technical dairy consultant for Elanco Animal Health, said that dairy production has increased 58 percent between 1944 and 2007.

"Today one cow produces what five cows produced," McClary said. That means using less water, land and manure. Beef production has also become more efficient.

"We're getting more from less, increasing productivity, sustainability and efficiency," McClary said.

The key now is ensuring the fruits of that productivity reach the right mouths, he added.

Countries in Southeast Asia report 650 million underfed inhabitants, compared to 15 million in developed countries, Ingram said.

Ingram added that even within the U.S., one in five children in large urban centers eats at soup kitchens, a 48 percent increase since 2004.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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