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Food - strategies to increase food supply

Different strategies can be used to increase food supply

We have seen that there are many problems that face the human race in terms of providing enough food for everyone to avoid undernutrition, malnourishment and famine.  However, we can feed everyone across the planet and many scientists think we are capable of producing enough food using modern methods of agriculture and science.  The main issues are in LICs, but there are simple and low cost technologies that can be used to increase food supply there.  There are also more high technology approaches, and both could help us to increase global food supply and reduce food insecurity.

Key words

Aeroponics - Growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil

Biotechnology - The manipulation (through genetic engineering) of living organisms to produce useful commercial products (such as pest resistant crops and new bacterial strains).
Hydroponics - A method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil.

Irrigation - Applying water to land in order to supply crops and other plants with necessary water.

The new green revolution - A combination of modern technology, traditional knowledge and an emphasis on farming, social and agro-ecological systems as well as yields, especially in poorer countries. 

Overview of strategies to increase food supply:

Irrigation

Irrigation is the application of water to land in order to supply crops and other plants with necessary water. This is used to maintain plant productivity when water supply is low.  This can be seasonal as in the UK, when many plants need irrigation in summer months, or it could be applied to a dry region to allow food production to take place there.   Irrigation is crucial to the world’s food supplies. Irrigated land made up about one-fifth of the total arable area in developing countries but produced two-fifths of all crops and close to three-fifths of cereal production. These systems increase food supply but can cause a lot of damage.  They reduce water tables in the ground and affect downstream river flow.  They also increase evaporation losses of water and increase the salinity of soils.

Figure 29 - irrigated Blueberries - Image taken by Pollinator, released under GFDL

Figure 30 - Figure 11 - Irrigation in Bangladesh, By Mohammed Tawsif Salam (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Aeroponics and hydroponics

Aeroponics involves growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil. This involves growing plants suspended in greenhouses (which reduces and controls the amounts of pests) with their root systems exposed.  The roots are then sprayed with a mist that contains nutrients every few minutes to provide the plant with what it needs, in the absence of soil.  As the roots are exposed to more oxygen the plants tend to grow faster.  This system is good as the farmer needs to use less nutrients and water as they go directly onto the roots of the plant and are not lost into the soil.  Also, the plants can be easily moved around and it takes less space as plants can be stacked on shelves, one on top of another.  The quicker growth increases the number of yields and it is easy to maintain the plants as they are in a controlled environment (so less pests) and can be elevated to a good height for farm workers to access.  However, it is very expensive so is less of an option for LICs, and the nutrient mixing and spraying system is essential so if this breaks down the whole crop is lost.  Also it requires specialist knowledge especially for the nutrient mix of the plants and it requires a lot of maintenance of the plants and equipment.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil. The plants have their roots dangling into a nutrient solution which provides for their needs, many of the advantages are the same as for Aeroponics as well as the additional advantage that the plants can even be transported in a nutrient base, allowing for extra freshness in the shops.

The new green revolution and use of biotechnology

The original green revolution involved changing farm practices in many parts of LICs between 1940 and the 1960s.  This revolution sought to get rid of famine in many nations and massively increase food production, by effectively ending subsistence agriculture and replacing it with commercial agriculture.  The idea was to take many of the systems, ideas and technology of European and USA farming into (mainly) Asian agriculture, whilst researching and utilising the resources Asian countries had.  New High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) were introduced yields of wheat, rice and maize rose by as much as 40%. This worked well in many areas, but also led to an increase in debt for farmers in poorer countries and damaged the natural environment because of the increasing use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.  Groundwater became polluted and over use of water led to water shortages and increasing salinity of the soil.

The new green revolution is more focussed in Africa rather than Asia, and mainly involves the use of biotechnology to overcome the environmental issues faced there.  It involves a combination of modern technology, traditional knowledge and an emphasis on farming especially in poorer countries. At the same time, it emphasizes alternative approaches and improved farm management and information systems in order to minimise environmental damage from external inputs and benefit poor farmers and marginal areas bypassed by the original green revolution.

Some examples include;

• breeding of crop varieties that can withstand adverse conditions, such as salt-tolerant rice or more drought-resistant sorghums and millets;
• soil nutrient cycling, through crop rotation and biomass recycling;
• reliance on genetic pest and disease resistance to replace or reduce chemical and mechanical pest control;
• integrated crop management strategies to control pests and diseases and maintain soil fertility.

 

Biotechnology

Biotechnology is the application of science towards food supply. It involves the manipulation (through genetic engineering) of living organisms to produce useful commercial products (such as pest resistant crops and new bacterial strains).  This is useful as it produces plants and animals that have certain characteristics to help them cope and thrive in different environments.  This is nothing new, and we have selected the best grains to plant the next year or mated the best animal species to produce better crops and animals for many millennia.  However, it is now a very scientific process.  For example, a species of corn has been developed with the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis added to it as a genetic modification.  This has dropped pesticide use on corn crops by 90 percent as the bacterium in its genes helps it ward off corn borers and other pests.

Other useful modifications include;

1. producing insect repellent crops which reduces pesticide use
2. Producing crops which resist disease
3. Producing foods which take longer to “go off” or perish
4. Crops that increase the number of vitamins or proteins in them, such as rice or potatoes.  It is even thought that crops could be produce to carry certain medicines.
5. Drought resistant crops that can grow in poor conditions
6. Meat has even been “grown” in a laboratory, this would reduce the need for large stocks of animals.

Appropriate technology

Appropriate technology is a method used to improve farming methods in LICs that is lower tech.  It was founded by Dr E.F. Schumacher as an alternative path for development for poorer people.  He founded his Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) in 1966 and published his ideas in a book "small is beautiful" in 1973.  His argument centred around the old proverb

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for life"

Appropriate/intermediate technology is usually;

A) Labour intensive - utilising and creating employment for local labour.
B) Using sustainable technology and tools/knowledge of local people.
C) Uses newly developed technology that are low cost and local which local people can manage and control rather than IMPORTED techniques and technologies.
D) In harmony with the local environment.

For example, Appropriate Technology Asia have invented a greenhouse that can cheaply installed in mountainous areas of Asia to prolong the growing season.  They call this solar agriculture and it allows them to provide a source of fresh vegetables that are currently unavailable in many remote areas during the winter months.  They can even be used above 2,700m!

Figure 32 A solar greenhouse, source - http://www.atasia.org.uk/

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