Food for the Future

The world is facing a challenge of population growth that carries with it the need to provide all those extra people with sustenance.

Food is national security. Food is economy. It is employment, energy, history. Food is everything.
—Spanish chef José Andrés

The supermarket in Tijuana had a display of fresh fruits and vegetables, but they looked nothing like those in supermarkets in the United States. The apples were bruised and damaged. The soft, wrinkled vegetables looked as if they had been there for weeks. The uncovered cake had insects flying around it. The selection was very limited; what was there was both eye-opening and disgusting. That was how it was in Tijuana, and apparently for the people living there it was normal. Will this scene ever be normal for us in the United States? Maybe so.

The world is facing a challenge of population growth that carries with it the need to provide all those extra people with sustenance. The human population of the earth currently has an annual growth rate of 1.2%; if that continues, humanity will double in number every 60 years. The estimated human population will increase by 2 billion people by 2050 to a total of 9–10 billion people, requiring 70% more food than is now being produced.

It is estimated that one out of six inhabitants of the United States presently suffers from food deprivation and malnutrition. The estimates of malnourished people around the world are one in four. These estimates are for the present day. Will both of these figures increase, stay the same, or decrease in the future? Unless food production can more than meet the demands of a vastly increased world population, the numbers of malnourished humans will definitely increase.

When Robert Malthus outlined the relationship between the linear increase in food production and the exponential increase in human population, ending eventually in widespread starvation, he never imagined the success of modern scientific agriculture. In the mid-20th century, an unprecedented agricultural advancement known as the Green Revolution brought hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and improved irrigation that drove the greatest population boom in history, but at the expense of ecological devastation. The success of the Green Revolution was so profound that the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) conferred its very first honorary membership status on Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, who was largely responsible for the development of high-yield grain varieties that profoundly increased harvests in Asia and transformed India from a food-importing nation to a grain exporter.

A book by Joel K. Bourne Jr. with the provocative title The End of Plenty explores our race to feed the world amid a skyrocketing population, tightening global grain supplies, and looming climate change that could render half our farmland useless by century’s end. Humanity must produce as much food in the next four decades as it has since the beginning of civilization to avoid catastrophe.

Technology must be able to supply answers to the question of how to produce more food before time runs out. There are hopeful signs: Brazil has almost doubled its yield of soybeans from 1990 to 2015 (0.7 tons/acre to 1.3 tons/ acre); China’s corn production in 1993 was 100 million tons and was 220 million tons in 2013; Russian conservation practices have boosted wheat yield by 25%; corn yield in the United States has increased by 2% per year since 1950. Yet, in the central and southern plains region of this country, the nation’s breadbasket, climate change is already making the region hotter and drier. There is also a water crisis in India, where water necessary to support the high rice yields coming from the new Green Revolution varieties is running short, causing social disruption and a high rate of suicide. In addition, the most easily available supply of phosphorus used for fertilizer is limited and coming to an end in the near future.

Growing food successfully involves a lot of knowledge that takes much time and many resources to develop. This collection of information forms another class of big data. There are huge international companies working to develop such data specific to each growing region and set of growing conditions.

In addition, there is a strong interdependence of food and energy to power society’s needs, such as transportation, climate control, computer systems, and lighting. In the past, when much of the world depended on human and animal muscle power, food was not just a source of nutrients but also the main source of the world’s useful energy. In present-day life, we depend much less on muscle power, but some of our potential food production is being diverted to produce biofuels. In the future, the two uses for agricultural crop production—food and energy—will probably continue to compete for finite amounts of agricultural resources, exacerbating the need to feed and supply energy for a growing world population.

There are other complications for the growing of food.

  1. Dynamic food systems. Input and output conditions change over time, thus changing the parameters for production, which constantly require adaptations.
  2. Economics. The incentive to grow food, at least in developed countries, is the money that producers can make. If the economics are correct, more food will be produced; if not, then less.
  3. Biology. Biology is not always predictable. Diseases and pests can (and have) come out of nowhere. This will continue to be a sporadic but repeated problem in the future.
  4. Regulations. Legal requirements for producers can profoundly affect food production. Regulations beget large production units more capable of dealing with legal requirements than are small operations.
  5. Competition. Land use is competitive. Land used to house humans cannot be used to grow grain. Land used to grow cotton will not contribute to food production. Land set aside for wild species cannot be used to grow domestic animals. African land owned by China is not available to grow food for Africans.
  6. Useful lifetimes for technology. A technology well suited for use under certain production conditions may not be adaptable to new conditions and may become useless, no matter how well it worked under the previous environment.
  7. Misapplication of technology. Several of these scenarios have recently limited the benefits of biotechnology. For example, not planting refuge plots for BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn (a genetically modified crop) has led to insects that have become immune to the BT gene. New glyphosate- resistant weeds are becoming a big problem, thus requiring the use of more and more toxic herbicides. Sustainability is fleeting.

Even as the food production crisis looms, there is still a very large amount of food waste every year. The annual estimated food waste of over 30% globally and 40–50% in the United States is enough to feed the entire world’s population what they need twice over. It is imperative to eliminate this extravagance if the goal of feeding the world’s population is to be attained realistically and without environmental devastation.

Why should bioengineers be concerned about world food production in the coming decades? Isn’t this the business of agriculture and not medicine? But these distinctions are artificial and becoming less relevant as the world’s human population increases beyond the comfortable carrying capacity of the environment. Everything is connected. Directly, of course, food equates to nutrition, and nutrition is essential to maintain human health. Without adequate nutrition, all the modern medical technology developed by bioengineers would have little effect keeping people healthy.

But beyond that, there is the ecological strain to produce more food to satisfy the entire anticipated human population. As more and more land is cleared to raise crops, area biodiversity decreases and leaves only vulnerable humans, their crops, and their domesticated animals as targets for pathogenic viruses, bacteria, and other microbes that ordinarily would infect alternative hosts. Without the dilution effects of naturally wild regions separating concentrations of human population, diseases that are now rare can become real menaces to human health. Such was the case with the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014–2015. Human health is likely to suffer as the need for more food ravages the environment.

A few years ago, a proposal was made to write a professional engineering exam common to all bio-based engineers. This has been a dream of mine for many years, but the original proposal was made by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE). These two societies proposed the formation of a consortium of societies, including the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), to develop the common exam. I was involved on both sides of the negotiations, with the biomedical engineers in BMES and the agricultural and biological engineers in ASABE. What I heard from the biomedical engineers was that they had no interest in agricultural engineering and nothing in common with the agricultural engineers; what I heard from the agricultural engineers was that they had no interest in biomedical engineering. The conversations were exact mirror images of one another, and it took years to convince the BMES Board to agree to support the consortium. In the end, the ASABE withdrew its proposal, the consortium never materialized, and the common exam was never established.

The trouble with the limited viewpoints of both of these groups is that the technologies used by both medicine and agriculture are very much the same. Both professions use genetic manipulation, sensor technology, biochemistry, advanced electronics, control systems, imaging, mechanics, automated systems, prediction algorithms, human factors, and communication, among others. At the most basic level, the technologies used are the same; it is only the applications that differ, just as food is essential in both medicine and agriculture.

The conclusion is that the looming food challenge should be of interest to every bio-based engineer, no matter what the particular application interest. I have known biomedical engineers who have done research with agricultural applications, and I have known agricultural engineers who have worked with medical applications. There should be no artificial barrier between the two, because it will take all of us working together to meet the challenge of an adequate food supply for all the people who will be hoping to live a good life in the near future.

For Further Reading

  1. J. K. Bourne, Jr., The End of Plenty, New York: Norton, 2015.
  2. N. Byrnes, “Food technology for all,” MIT Technol. Rev., vol. 118, no. 4, p. 66, July–Aug. 2015.
  3. C. Clayton, “Food security’s fragile balance,” Progressive Farmer, vol. 130, no. 10, pp. 63–82, Sept. 2015.
  4. K. Conca, “Decoupling water and violent conflict,” Issues Sci. Technol., vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 39–48, Fall 2012.
  5. R. L. Dorit, “Breached ecological barriers and the Ebola outbreak,” Amer. Sci., vol. 103, no. 4, pp. 256–259, July–Aug. 2015.
  6. M. Fischetti, “This land is my land,” Scientif. Amer., vol. 312, no. 5, pp. 90, May 2015.
  7. “Food” (special issue), Sci. Amer., vol. 309, no. 3, Sept. 2013.
  8. K. Gray, T. Dobbs, and L. Parshley, “The future of food,” Pop. Sci., vol. 287, no. 4, pp. 34–41, Oct. 2015.
  9. T. Kelly. (2010, Dec. 7). Impending crisis: Earth to run out of food by 2050? Time Mag. [Online].
  10. S. S. O’Toole, “The fun never ends,” The Shepherd, vol. 60, no. 10, pp. 17–18, Oct. 2015.
  11. A. Regalado, “The next great GMO debate,” MIT Technol. Rev., vol. 118, no. 5, pp. 24–30, Sept.–Oct. 2015.
  12. E. Royte. (2016, Mar. 1). The future of food: How to feed our growing planet. Natl. Geographic Mag. [Online]. (part of a continuing series of articles)
  13. E. Royte, “Waste not, want not,” Natl. Geographic Mag., vol. 229, no. 3, pp. 30–55, Mar. 2016.
  14. V. Smi, “Food waste,” IEEE Spectrum, vol. 53, no. 2, p. 25, Feb. 2016.
  15. S. Thompson, “Forage and fuel feeding the global appetites,” PeriodiCALS, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 12–17, 2015.