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Will We Run Out of Food in the Foreseeable Future?

By: , Posted on: October 20, 2015

Our reliance on the grains of cereal plants (especially wheat, rice, and corn) is so great that they supply nearly 60% of our food energy and 50% of the protein consumed on Earth. Thus, grains really do ‘stand between us and starvation.’ Grains offer the great advantages that they can be stored safely for long periods and thus transported far from their growth sites. Grains are adaptable with respect to the wide range of foods made from them. Grains are also important as animal food and for various forms of industrial processing.

But will we run out of food in the foreseeable future? Efforts continue to improve methods of breeding, agronomy, harvesting, and processing, showing good signs that grain production and quality will continue to increase, providing for a world of hungry people. The production and yield of wheat have tripled in the past 40 years. Furthermore, Figure 3 shows how there is an ongoing increase in the worldwide production of cereal grains, also including maize, rice, barley, and other grass-related grains. The future therefore looks hopeful.

However, we still have great inequalities in food supply in terms of grains. Although current world production for all grains is equivalent to 1 kg per person per day, there is still hunger because some of this great volume of grain serves alternative important nonfood purposes, such as animal feed and industrial uses. The greatest problem, however, is that the major sites of production are distant from the major sites of need, and those in need lack the resources to access the excess grain.

Figure 3 The past decade of production and utilization of cereal grains. Source: FAOSTAT.
Figure 3 The past decade of production and utilization of cereal grains. Source: FAOSTAT.

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide (Figure 4) offer the promise of increasing grain yields, but with growth conditions changing, breeders and agronomists need to focus research on adapting to a changing world scene.

Climate Change and the Future of Grain Production

Predictions of global climate change include increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, causing warmer temperatures (especially the daily minima), changed patterns of rainfall, and increased frequency and severity of heat-stress episodes, together with decreased frost frequency and rising sea levels. These trends imply a future of fluctuations in grain yield and quality, but overall increases in grain yield are predicted. Rising sea levels have serious implications for many low-lying rice-growing areas in Asia.

Irrespective of arguments about causes, increases in atmospheric levels in carbon dioxide have been clearly demonstrated, rising from ancient levels of 150–280 to 400 ppm and beyond, with a predicted doubling in a century or so. One consequence is the provision of carbon fertilizer, leading in the future to more efficient biomass production and greater yields for many grain species. However, the yield increases may be largely in carbohydrate, potentially leaving reduced grain protein levels. The fertilizing effects of carbon dioxide are more significant at higher temperatures, the other major effect predicted to accompany the global climate challenge. For wheat, the increases in temperature are also expected to affect potential dough-forming properties. Temperatures in the range 15–30°C during grain filling have been shown to provide optimal dough strength, but grain with weaker dough quality is produced when plants are subjected to a few days of heat stresses of over 35°C during grain filling. However, there are indications that some wheat genotypes are available that provide stable grain quality despite such heat-stress conditions, thereby opening up promising research directions. So, considerable research effort is concentrated on breeding for changed growth conditions.

Figure 4 Increasing temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide promise increasing grain yields due to the carbon-fertilizer effect.
Figure 4 Increasing temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide promise increasing grain yields due to the carbon-fertilizer effect.

encyclopedia of food grainsThis is an exclusive prerelease excerpt from the article The Grains that Feed the World from the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Food Grains, Second Edition that publishes in January 2016. The four-volume Encyclopedia is an in-depth and authoritative reference comprising all areas of grain science. Coverage includes everything from the genetics of grains to the commercial, economic and social aspects of this important food source. Also covered are the biology and chemistry of grains, the applied aspects of grain production and the processing of grains into various food and beverage products. With the paramount role of cereals as a global food source, this Encyclopedia is sure to become the standard reference work in the field of science. Learn more here.

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Food Science & Nutrition

The field of food science is highly interdisciplinary, spanning areas of chemistry, engineering, biology, and many more. Researchers in these areas achieve fundamental advances in our understanding of agriculture, nutrition, and food-borne illness, and develop new technologies, like food processing methods and packaging material. Against a backdrop of global issues of food supply and regulation, this important work is supported by Elsevier’s catalog of books, eBooks, and journals in food science, considered essential resources for students, instructors, and health professionals worldwide. Learn more about our Food Science and Nutrition books here.

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