Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Food Security

Food security is a term indicating access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet dietary needs for an active and healthy life. One of humanity’s most significant challenges is how to address food security. Historically, most people would be startled to discover that hundreds of famines have struck periodically in many societies in past thousands of years. They are documented by historians in many cultures.

In our last post we highlighted the work of Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution which originated during the mid 20th century in Mexico where food productivity had fallen alarmingly. His success in selecting certain desirable plants for repeated breeding and hybridizing different varieties to achieve disease resistance and increased productivity were monumental agricultural forward leaps. The success achieved by Borlaug spread to Latin American nations and other nations such as India, Pakistan, and the Philippines.

Many issues of present and future world food security still exist. The formula for an adequate supply of food has been sought ever since man first appeared on this planet. However, since the world’s population began to climb inexorably from one billion to over seven billion beginning about 1800, the issue of food security has become increasingly urgent.

Man’s recent quest to enhance the world’s food supply relates to a series of events beginning with the famous evolutionist Charles Darwin. He suggested that living things, animals and plants alike, were subject to change over time—a startling proposal. Inherent in his proposition, even though he was not concerned with this aspect of his theory of evolution, was the possibility that the food producing characteristics of plants could be altered and enhanced. 

We may remember Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) from our early biology classes. Mendel was famous for cross-breeding different types of pea plants. He was able to predict traits of offspring. Decades after his original research from 1856-1863, his findings were rediscovered by scientists in the early 20th century. They confirmed Mendel’s early interpretation of a mathematically predictable internal mechanism, a precursor of modern genetic knowledge.

Mendel’s cross-breeding of different types of pea plants provided the foundation of knowledge of inheritance. Hydridization, in turn, was introduced to farmers in the 1930s. Today’s plant hybridization practices followed thousands of years of artificial selection to achieve desirable traits in plants which provide human food. An outstanding example is the corn (maize) plant. Its ancestor is a wild grass called teosinte, a New World plant which originally bore little resemblance to corn varieties which survive today. In the past several thousand years humans selected the most desirable plants generation after generation. They searched for plants with more plentiful, tastier kernels on larger cobs and sturdier stalks to produce seeds for ensuing crops. Today’s corn varieties are all descendants of ancient teosinte.

Over thousands of years humans have altered teosinte in a fashion similar to the manner in which Norman Borlaug altered the wheat varieties for Mexico, India, and Pakistan to produce the Green Revolution. It appears the process may be hastened as we gain additional knowledge of genetics. Corn is the most popular food grain in the New World.

At the DNA level corn and teosinte are surprisingly alike. They are genetically similar in their number of chromosomes and their remarkably similar gene arrangements. Teosinte can cross-breed with modern varieties of corn and form hybrids able to reproduce naturally. In a similar phenomenon in the animal world, different breeds of dogs are genetically similar. Humans have selectively bred dogs generation after generation, mostly in the past few hundred years, to produce diverse breeds manifesting the traits desired by modern dog lovers. Different breeds of dogs are really the same species and are able to interbreed and reproduce.

The process of selective breeding to increase food supply and improve the world’s concern with food security is a wonderful achievement of agricultural geneticists. Selective breeding techniques increase production of animal as well as plant products for human consumption. Norman Borlaug and a host of other modern visionaries have provided farmers with knowledge of necessary technology for irrigation, fertilization, and other chemical substances to enhance their plentiful yields. Methods of harvest, processing, transportation, storage, and distribution of food resources in our world of seven billion souls also contributes to world food security.

Personal visits to the supermarket may help us put the topic of food security in perspective. Modern culture may be more focused on consumption rather than production. We must actively remind ourselves of the multitude of event sequences which result in a virtual surfeit of food goods on market shelves. We start with the complex genetic capability of thousands of plant and animal species used by man for food. Miracles of plant and animal reproduction and growth processes, enhanced in our day by modern methods of plant breeding, hybridization, and lately, genetic modification, may trigger renewed awareness of our reliance on divine enablement to provide food for Earth’s teeming multitudes. It is not frivolous to suggest that our visits to the supermarket may become a worship experience as we give glory to the Creator of all things.