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The Peanut Solution
(patents and famine)
Andrew Rice, New York Times
Like most tales of great invention, the story of Plumpy’nut begins with a eureka moment, in this case involving a French doctor and a jar of Nutella, and proceeds through the stages of rejection, acceptance, evangelization and mass production. The product may not look like much — a little foil packet filled with a soft, sticky substance — but its advocates are prone to use the language of magic and wonders. What is Plumpy’nut? Sound it out, and you get the idea: it’s an edible paste made of peanuts, packed with calories and vitamins, that is specially formulated to renourish starving children. Since its widespread introduction five years ago, it has been credited with significantly lowering mortality rates during famines in Africa. Children on a Plumpy’nut regimen add pounds rapidly, often going from a near-death state to relative health in a month. In the world of humanitarian aid, where progress is usually measured in subtle increments of misery, the new product offers a rare satisfaction: swift, visible, fantastic efficacy.

Plumpy’nut is also a brand name, however, the registered trademark of Nutriset …

One element of genius in Briend’s recipe was precisely its easy replicability: it could be made by poor people, for poor people, to the benefit of patients and farmers alike. Most of the world’s peanuts are grown in developing countries, where allergies to them are relatively uncommon, and the rest of the concoction is simple to prepare. On a visit to Malawi, Briend whipped up a batch in a blender to prove that Plumpy’nut could be made just about anywhere.

Others, however, quickly realized that the miracle product had more than just moral value. Nutriset has aggressively protected its intellectual property, and the bulk of Plumpy’nut production continues to take place at Nutriset facilities in France. (Unicef, the world’s primary buyer, purchases 90 percent of its supply from that factory, according to a 2009 report prepared for the agency.) Internationally, there has been a vituperative debate over who should control the means of production, with India going so far as to impose sharp restrictions on Plumpy’nut, calling it an unproven colonialist import. Elsewhere, local producers are simply ignoring the patent.

… Patents are meant to offer incentives to innovators by giving them a time-limited right to exclusively exploit their ideas for profit. But many say that lifesaving products should be treated by a different set of rules.
(2 September 2010)

Can science feed the world?
(Nature magazine special)
More than one billion people go hungry today, and the vast majority of them are in low-income countries. Increasing yield sustainably — using less water, fertilizers and pesticides — is going to be a crucial part of the solution. Nature asks what role science has to play in securing food for the future.

How to feed a hungry world

Producing enough food for the world’s population in 2050 will be easy. But doing it at an acceptable cost to the planet will depend on research into everything from high-tech seeds to low-tech farming practices.

The growing problem

World hunger remains a major problem, but not for the reasons many suspect. Nature analyses the trends and the challenges of feeding 9 billion by 2050.

Inside the hothouses of industry

Feeding the world is going to require the scientific and financial muscle of agricultural biotechnology companies. Natasha Gilbert asks whether they’re up to the task.

An underground revolution

Plant breeders are turning their attention to roots to increase yields without causing environmental damage. Virginia Gewin unearths some promising subterranean strategies.

The global farm

With its plentiful sun, water and land, Brazil is quickly surpassing other countries in food production and exports. But can it continue to make agricultural gains without destroying the Amazon?

(28 July 2010)
More articles available at original. To Nature’s credit, these articles all seem to be available online. Two of the articles are excerpted below.

Is there perhaps a touch of hubris in the title: “Can science feed the world?” I think farmers and gardeners have a hand in feeding the world too.

If this is so, part of the response is to make sure that they have fair access to land and fair prices for their produce. In other words, food is not just a matter of technology and gadgets, but social and economic relationships. -BA

How to feed a hungry world

Editorial, Nature
Producing enough food for the world’s population in 2050 will be easy. But doing it at an acceptable cost to the planet will depend on research into everything from high-tech seeds to low-tech farming practices.

With the world’s population expected to grow from 6.8 billion today to 9.1 billion by 2050, a certain Malthusian alarmism has set in: how will all these extra mouths be fed? The world’s population more than doubled from 3 billion between 1961 and 2007, yet agricultural output kept pace — and current projections (see page 546) suggest it will continue to do so. Admittedly, climate change adds a large degree of uncertainty to projections of agricultural output, but that just underlines the importance of monitoring and research to refine those predictions. That aside, in the words of one official at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the task of feeding the world’s population in 2050 in itself seems “easily possible”.

Easy, that is, if the world brings into play swathes of extra land, spreads still more fertilizers and pesticides, and further depletes already scarce groundwater supplies. But clearing hundreds of millions of hectares of wildlands — most of the land that would be brought into use is in Latin America and Africa — while increasing today’s brand of resource-intensive, environmentally destructive agriculture is a poor option. Therein lies the real challenge in the coming decades: how to expand agricultural output massively without increasing by much the amount of land used.

What is needed is a second green revolution — an approach that Britain’s Royal Society aptly describes as the “sustainable intensification of global agriculture”. Such a revolution will require a wholesale realignment of priorities in agricultural research. There is an urgent need for new crop varieties that offer higher yields but use less water, fertilizers or other inputs — created, for example, through long-neglected research on modifying roots (see page 552) — and for crops that are more resistant to drought, heat, submersion and pests. Equally crucial is lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste. (Between one-quarter and one-third of the food produced worldwide is lost or spoiled.)
(29 July 2010)

Food: An underground revolution
(Research on roots)
Virginia Gewin, Nature
Plant breeders are turning their attention to roots to increase yields without causing environmental damage. Virginia Gewin unearths some promising subterranean strategies.

Tangled, dirty and buried underfoot, roots are a mess to study. Digging them up is a time-consuming and sometimes back-breaking process. The shovel must be wielded with care to preserve the roots’ delicate branching patterns, the root hairs and the microbes that cling to them. All of this explains why roots have been largely out of mind, as well as out of sight, for agricultural researchers — until now.

Many scientists are starting to see roots as central to their efforts to produce crops with a better yield — efforts that go beyond the Green Revolution. That intensive period of research and development, starting in the 1940s, dramatically boosted food production through the breeding of high-yield crop varieties and the use of pesticides, fertilizers and more water. But the increases were accompanied by a depletion of groundwater and, by 1998, an eightfold increase in nitrogen-based fertilizer usage1, bringing environmental problems such as polluted waterways. The leaps in yield have still left many hungry. And the revolution missed many developing nations, some of which have poor soils and limited access to irrigation and expensive fertilizers. “Those strategies of the past aren’t working now to meet growing food needs,” says Jonathan Lynch, a plant nutritionist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

“Roots are the key to a second green revolution — one that doesn’t rely on expensive inputs,” says Lynch. …

Virginia Gewin is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.
(28 July 2010)
A PDF of the complete article is online.

Seeing a Time (Soon) When We’ll All Be Dieting
(book review)
Mark Bittman, New York Times

The Coming Famine
The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It

By Julian Cribb
248 pages. University of California Press. $24.95.

Fifty years ago, a billion people were undernourished or starving; the number is about the same today. That’s actually progress, since a billion represented a third of the human race then, and “only” a sixth now.

Today we have another worry: roughly the same number of people eat too much. But, says Julian Cribb, a veteran science journalist from Australia, “The era of cheap, abundant food is over.”

Like many other experts, he argues that we have passed the peak of oil production, and it’s all downhill from now on. He then presents evidence that we have passed the peaks for water, fertilizer and land, and that we will all soon be made painfully aware that we have passed it for food, as wealthy nations experience shortages and rising prices, and poorer ones starve.

… And while there is a sky-is-falling tone to his relatively brief (just over 200 pages) thesis — if it doesn’t make you restock your survivalist shelter with another hundred pounds of rice and beans — the book does offer sensible ways to help alleviate the “global feeding frenzy.”

Climate change, of course, is an important piece of Mr. Cribb’s puzzle, as are overexploitation of the sea and natural resources, overuse of chemical fertilizer, reliance on fossil fuels, protectionism, subsidies, biofuels, waste and other factors.

Most important are what he calls “the two elephants in the kitchen”: population growth and overconsumption. A projected 33 percent growth in population in the next 20 years, combined with increased consumption of meat as the global middle class grows larger, means that food production must grow by at least 50 percent in that same period.

Excerpt: ‘The Coming Famine’
(24 August 2010)

World Carryover Grain Stocks Fall to 72 Days of Consumption

Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute
Estimates for this year’s global grain carryover stocks have fallen to 444 million tons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s August 12th World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report. This amount of grain remaining in the world’s silos and stockpiles when the next harvest begins is enough to meet 72 days of consumption.

“This drop in world carryover stocks of grain to 72 days of consumption is moving us uncomfortably close to the 64 days of carryover stocks in 2007 that fueled the 2007–08 spike in world food prices,” says Lester R. Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute.

A searing record heat wave, severe drought, and relentless wildfires in Russia and Central Europe have decimated the region’s harvests. Russia’s wheat production is now estimated at 45 million tons, a 27 percent drop from last year. In Kazakhstan, the wheat harvest is down 32 percent to 12 million tons, and in Ukraine it is 17 million tons, 19 percent smaller than in 2009. On August 5, Russia announced that it was banning grain exports at least through the end of the year and requested that neighboring countries do the same. Since these three countries typically supply a fourth of world wheat exports, wheat prices have risen along with the region’s temperature.
(12 August 2010)

Growing fuel by the roadside

Sam Harris, Charlotte Observer
Crops, planted along N.C. highways, could someday provide biofuels for state vehicles
… In conjunction with a national program known as “FreeWays to Fuel” (, researchers at N.C. State University are working to grow canola and sunflower crops along the wasted edges of highways and other marginal areas.

The national program, which began in Utah and has spread across the United States, originally used municipal zones to plant crops for biofuels. Utah’s first harvests are now being used to power Department of Transportation vehicles in Salt Lake County.
(8 August 2010)S