Friday, 25 April 2014

Science for presidents

Food Safety

In search of the new green revolution

International experts call for a radical change in food security and agricultural production

The science that deals with agriculture has to undergo a "radical change" in the next 40 years. The goal, feeding a population that in 2050 probably will reach 9,000 million people worldwide. And at the base, taking into consideration the impact of climate change on crops and review the knowledge on plant molecular biology and agro-technologies.

Xavier Pujol Gebellí | 18 February 2010

Photo: Frits  Ahlefeldt-Laurvig
The next ‘green revolution’ must be sustainable. Otherwise, the consequences for economic, social and political stability in the world could become catastrophic. This is how the journal Science understands it, in a special issue on food safety published last February 12th, where it discusses in detail the state of the art of plant molecular biology and openly exposes what he considers one of the greatest, and occasionally
forgotten, scientific and social challenges of a future that it perceives as immediate.

David Baulcombe, researcher at the University of Cambridge and member of the British Royal Society of Sciences, stressed in an editorial in Science the compelling reasons to link scientific and technological development with food security. First, values the expert, what excels is the impact so far hardly considered of the process of climate change regarding crop performance and, very particularly the biological adaptation of agricultural species to changing climate conditions.

So far, fears of drastic changes in the crops were part of a theoretical body based on future projections. But recent reports from the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) begin to mark a before and after with respect to the accumulated knowledge and the potential for change that it implies. Amongst the experts on the matter it is considered that the physics of global warming already provide enough clues not to doubt that something is happening with the climate worldwide.

The evidence of 'biological' change has to be contrasted with many more samples than actually exist But not so with biology, so far plagued by supposed scenarios and therefore speculations. Little or nothing can be said for the moment, about the influence of climate on the evolution of ecosystems, habitats or species (animal and plant) beyond those based on models or observation of the fossil record and behaviour in earlier times. The evidence of ‘biological’ change, though highly likely, has to be contrasted with many more samples than actually exist.

More with less

If projections are met, the editors of Science value, one will have to resort to new strategies to mitigate the most likely change in the agricultural landscape if we are to meet the nutritional needs of 9,000 million people. As highlighted by a growing number of researchers, we must come up with ways to "produce more with less land use, with a rational use of resources and maintaining changing ecosystems safe”. In BioVision, global forum on life sciences in Lyon, a strong message was launched about this: molecular biology and biotechnology "have to contribute" to mitigate the effects of change and "give a chance" to countries with developing
or emerging economies.

What does this mean in the context of more with less? In essence, integrating scientific disciplines such as genomics, systems biology, microbiology and cell biology. Baulcombe claims, particularly, an effort in sequencing with the object to compare crop varieties and introduce improvements much more quickly and efficiently than is possible with the current technologies.

Global Security

In any case, the point is to produce more, but also with greater security, which introduces new elements to the classic definition of food security. Traditionally, risks and dangers have been associated with the presence of toxins or microorganisms in food. In this extended version, nutrition is also considered from international forums, including WHO and FAO, as a safety factor. But not just nutrition. Access to food is also taken into account and, with it, manipulations resulting from alterations of the plant genome of food interest.

"Scientists and engineers can make the difference for each of the steps leading from the farm to the table”, sustains Science. The concept is applicable to seeds, fertilizers, water, soil conditions and crop treatment. For each of them, genetic engineering and biotechnology have a reserved role.

CHANGING HABITS Not only biotechnology and genetic engineering can accomplish the goal of feeding a growing population. There are few authors advocating a drastic change in habits and dietary customs. Although, as acknowledged by themselves, the alternatives, at least initially, are not very "tasty".

The first of these, as suggested by Kimberly Selkoe, from the Marine Biology Institute of Hawaii, in a coral article also published in Science, goes to ensure a "sustainable exploitation" of the ocean floor. Science should provide better tools to increase productivity under safe conditions of the aquaculture and at the same time, of the fishing grounds.

The second, changing the "intensive" protein intake that occurs in Western culture and which drags, due to its weight, the rest of the world. "We eat too much meat”, says Erik Stokstad, Science editor. Reducing the demand for animal protein reduces the pressure on the production of grain and forage, essential to feed livestock. In return, you can invest in vegetable protein, or as Gretchen Vogel notes, get the protein intake from insects. Artificial chromosomes, mechanisms on RNA interference, gene replacement and new robotic applications are part of a future with new foods and new habits, Elizabeth Penissi claims, from the board of editors of Science.