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By 2050, Earth’s population will grow from 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion. That increase in population comes with an increased demand for food. To keep up with that demand, scientists and economists across the world say that farmers must produce more food in the next 50 years than they have in the past 10,000 years combined.

Looking forward, the agriculture community views global food and nutrition security as its top priority. Farmers, researchers, universities, extension agents, nonprofits and government agencies all over the world – including those here in Virginia – are working together to find innovative ways to meet the world’s needs.

Erik Nilsen, professor of biological sciences and executive director of the BIOL/VBI Plant Growth Facility at Virginia Tech, works with biological sciences graduate student Jackson Mitchell. The facility is managed as a University Service Center and is available to all VT scientists and local businesses.

Erik Nilsen, professor of biological sciences and executive director of the BIOL/VBI Plant Growth Facility at Virginia Tech, works with biological sciences graduate student Jackson Mitchell. The facility is managed as a University Service Center and is available to all VT scientists and local businesses.

Rising Demand

Having enough food to feed the world’s growing population is only one challenge of many – a challenge that is more complicated than simply producing enough food, according to David McClary, doctor of veterinary medicine and senior dairy technical consultant with Elanco Animal Health. McClary speaks to agriculture groups across the country on the topic of making safe, affordable food a global reality.

“We’ve really come a long way in the fight against hunger,” McClary says. He adds, however, that even as the population grows, the number of farmers is on the decline. “Never have so few been involved in the security of so many.”

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In his presentation on global food security, McClary says that by the year 2050, the world will need 100 percent more food – 70 percent of which must come from efficiency-improving technology. The remaining 30 percent can be divided by a 10 percent increase in efficiency (no-till practices, cooling dairy cattle, etc.) and a 20 percent increase in land use.

Basically, that means more food in the form of higher yields must be produced from the land already in production. “A majority of the increase in food production must come from technology,” he says. “We just don’t have the land mass for additional crop space.”

Boris Vinatzer, assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology and weed science, conducts research in a lab.

Boris Vinatzer, assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology and weed science, conducts research in a lab.

Innovation And Education

According to Sandra J. Adams, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Virginia is approaching the issue of feeding the world from several directions. At Virginia Tech, researchers are focusing on chickens as an important part of that challenge.

They are raising birds for their DNA. Paul Siegel, professor emeritus of animal and poultry sciences, is the Ancestry.com of the poultry world and has charted the genes of 50 generations of chickens. He has been breeding birds since the late 1940s, and he studies how their genes influence the way they gain weight and resist disease. His research helps companies breed chickens that will grow faster on less feed and require fewer drugs to stay healthy.

Siegel is not only raising bigger, healthier birds, but he is helping prepare for a larger, wealthier world population with a growing taste for meat.

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A healthier, faster-growing chicken could go a long way in feeding a world with an ever-increasing need for high-quality protein, but Siegel doesn’t stop there. He is also addressing concerns about agriculture’s effect on the environment by developing chickens that can thrive in hotter temperatures and produce less manure.

Experts believe that chicken will be the meat of the future. It requires less land to produce and is a cheap protein source. Because of the birds’ rapid reproduction and quick maturation cycle, geneticists can effect changes in chickens relatively quickly.

We certainly have challenges to overcome, Adams says, but with the combination of groundbreaking research, dedicated farmers and a concentrated effort to feed the world, we will get there.

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