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Feeding the world isn’t easy

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With the world population expected to increase by almost 3 billion people by 2050, a Muscle Shoals organization will be at the forefront of ensuring farm production increases accordingly.

Scientists at IFDC’s Muscle Shoals headquarters and at outposts around the world are searching for new ways to produce fertilizer that costs less, is more environmentally friendly and helps farmers feed the expected 9.2 billion world inhabitants.

IFDC scientists are also working with farmers worldwide to promote the use of improved seed varieties and farming techniques that will allow them to reap larger yields.

Amit Roy, president and CEO of IFDC, said the challenges of keeping the world’s food supply in step with the population are enormous.

Diet changes increase farming challenges

“The world’s population is growing at a rate of one million additional people every fifth day,” Roy said.

What people eat is changing, too, creating more challenges for farmers.

“As income grows, more people can afford to add meat to their diet,” Roy said. “To produce meat requires more grain. To produce 1 kilogram of beef requires 8 kilograms of corn. By 2050, instead of being able to produce enough grains to feed 9.2 billion people, we will have to produce enough grain to feed the equivalent of 11.3 billion people because of the increased meat production that is expected.”

Helping world farmers meet those challenges is nothing new for IFDC, an International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development. The organization was created in 1974 amid a world food crisis.

Roy said the organization has helped millions of farmers in more than 130 counties. Many individuals receiving help emerged from poverty, he said.

Future challenges

Ron Smith, a greenhouse technician at IFDC’s headquarters in Muscle Shoals, is among those conducting experiments.

“I find it very rewarding to work in an area that helps combat world hunger,” he said. “If the world is ever to live in peace, the people will have to be fed.”

Wendie Bible, a senior analyst in the laboratory at IFDC’s headquarters, also savors knowing her work is helping to fight hunger.

“It is very rewarding knowing that work done at IFDC is impacting world hunger in a positive way,” Bible said. “I often read success stories of how farmers are learning how to increase yields through IFDC projects.”

In addition to helping farmers grow more food for feeding their families, IFDC also helps them find markets for their excess grain and other farm products, allowing them to earn an income.

John Shields, interim director of IFDC’s Research and Development Division, admits the challenges of helping farmers keep the world fed come 2050 is one of the biggest it has ever faced.

“To feed that many people, farmers will have to double their food production,” Shields said.

Compounding the problem of feeding an additional 3 billion people is loss of farmland. Roy said as the population increases, land that was once used for farming becomes towns and villages.

A.K.M. Maqsudal Alam, a chief science officer at Bangladesh Jute Research Institute, said the rapidly increasing population of that country is gobbling up farm land.

Not only do farmers have to grow more rice and other crops, they must grow it on less land.

Alam said IFDC is playing a major role in helping farmers in Bangladesh keep pace.

“IFDC is working with our farmers to show them how to use new fertilizers, new high yielding crop varieties and new technology to increase their yields,” Alam said.

A world connected

In its early days, IFDC brought researchers from around the world to Muscle Shoals to work. Today, the Internet allows researchers across the globe collaborate on IFDC’s newest research without having to leave their own laboratory.

Sabesh Kanagalingham, a senior research project leader in IFDC’s Research and Development Division, said the organization’s Virtual Fertilizer Research Center connects scientists worldwide. The virtual research center, which is based in Muscle Shoals, was created in 2010. Researchers can communicate with one another on opposite sides of the globe through video conferences or by email, while showing off and discussing results of their experiments for the virtual research center.

Kanagalingham expects the virtual center’s research creating new fertilizer will play a major role in preventing widespread famine if population growth estimates come to fruition.

“Since TVA stopped its fertilizer research program in the 1990s, there have not been many new developments in fertilizers,” Kanagalingham said. “The private sector does not have much of an incentive to do fertilizer research because if they develop more efficient fertilizer it will mean less revenue for them. But as the world population grows, we must develop more efficient fertilizers that are less harmful to the environment and that provide nutrients to plants when they are needed and that help farmers produce bigger yields.”

World scientists also collaborate to develop ways to produce fertilizer using less energy, Kanagalingham said. Current fertilizer production methods are energy intensive, which increases production costs.

The next generation

Roy said it requires the equivalent of energy contained in four barrels of oil to produce one ton of nitrogen fertilizer.

He said reducing energy requirements for fertilizer production will help make it more affordable.

He said there is no way to prevent widespread hunger without fertilizer.

If fertilizer was not used today, farmers world-wide could only grow enough food to feed about 3 billion people, he said.

Roy said he is confident IFDC will play a major role in developing the next generation of fertilizer and ensuring that the world’s food supply remains in step with its population.

“We have brought together the world’s best minds through our Virtual Fertilizer Research Center to work on a solution,” Roy said. “We are already starting to see some great ideas and are seeking more ideas.

“Who knows, it could be a farmer here in north Alabama who comes up with an idea that could lead to us creating the new fertilizer the world is seeking.”

Kanagalingham said research will be shared with fertilizer producers in the United States. While IFDC’s focus is helping farmers in developing nations, a new generation of fertilizers that would allow farmers to grow more, spend less and be more environmentally friendly, would also be useful in the United States.

Times Daily

2 Comments on "Feeding the world isn’t easy"

  1. DC on Tue, 31st May 2011 2:45 am 

    Q/ If fertilizer was not used today, farmers world-wide could only grow enough food to feed about 3 billion people, he said.

    That is the key line isnt it? This groups efforts, as noble as they sound, in fact, directly contribute to the population explosion. More food=more people. We saw it int he so-called green-revolution. The GR ‘saved’ the 3rd world from famine, only to set them up for a even greater famine down the road. We can clearly see this happening now. Every step taken to ‘grow’ food production ensures there will be mouths to consume any gains, thus generateing need for another set of techo-fixes down the road. But as time passes, the interval between each cycle decreases as well. Techno-optimists now call for a Green revolution 2.0(so-called GMO’s) to fix the problems created by Ver. 1.0. That took less then 4 decades. If they got there 2.0 fix, it would take a lot less than 40 years for them to start calling for Ver 3.0. Which would be what? Soylent Green?

    If the earth can only feed about 3 billion people, then that is what we should working towards.

  2. Kenz300 on Tue, 31st May 2011 5:05 am 

    The solution needs to be to slow the growth of human population rather than trying to stretch limited resources. Sooner of later the growth in population has to stop. It can not go on forever without collapse. Can we learn anything from Easter Island?

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