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Sustainability in the face of change: Challenges in food security in an ever-evolving climate

  This year's Agricultural Bioscience International Conference, or ABIC, was held in Winnipeg  from Sept 25th to the 28th.  Genome Alberta's Research Program Manager Ryan Mercer attended the conference and contributed this blog post on one of the key discussions from the event.

   The global population is expected to increase by approx 2.3 billion people by the year 2050. This growth will almost exclusively take place in developing countries and there is a widespread understanding that food production needs to be increased to match the population boom. At the 2017 Agricultural Biosciences International Conference held this year in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a common theme arose as a two-part problem: How do we feed more than 9 billion people by 2050, despite the challenges presented by climate change?

  A major limitation for food security (i.e. having enough food to feed everyone) and future production is environmental stress on crops, such as temperature changes, water availability and soil chemistry. These problematic factors are in part driven by climate change, and solutions include biological adaption of crops to imperfect environmental conditions. Using genomics, researchers are investigating how certain crop plants have a better tolerance for stress. At ABIC 2017, Dr. Sagadevan G. Mundree from Queensland University of Technology in Australia presented some interesting work on crop adaptation to drought conditions, which could be a solution for prairie farmers in Canada during challenging seasons. Dr. Mundree’s team has developed modified chickpea crops that have an incredible resilience to drought and desiccation, while rehydration effectively resurrects the plant. Using genetically informed breeding strategies, the team has also increased both the amount and bioavailability of iron in chickpeas. This makes for a highly adaptable food product that would be beneficial for anemic countries that are primarily vegetarians.

  Increasing nutrient content in food products is an important research avenue to consider while moving towards 2050, because food security does not necessarily mean nutrition security. Dr. Regina Moench-Pfanner, founder and CEO of ibn360, a global nutrition organization aimed at sustainability, presented a talk titled ‘Quality vs Quantity and the Implication to Food Security’. Developing countries, such as Malaysia which have recently established food security, suffer from gross malnutrition, nutrient deficiencies and obesity. Malnutrition is related to the consumption patterns of calories and nutrients, as opposed to overall food production, and access to nutrient-dense food can be limiting despite sufficient production. Unfortunately, economics favours the production of cheap, energy-dense but nutrient-poor foods. Because of this, diets around the world are becoming similar (e.g. globalized nutrition) and crop diversity has been affected. There has been an overall reduction in crop diversity to favour economically profitable crops such as wheat, soybeans, rice and potatoes, which are responsible for the same few ingredients that can make many energy-dense foods, thus reducing the micronutrient availability in foods.

   The current state of food security, and the potential for nutrition security not keeping pace, presents global challenges to food production that requires innovative solutions that could be addressed through genomics. Opportunities include breeding and selecting for stress-adapted crops with value-added nutrient content, while taking advantage of scientific knowledge in soil microbiology and precision agriculture for optimizing growth conditions.

Sustainability in the face of change: Challenges in food security in an ever-evolving climate

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