Do We Have Alternatives to Feed the Growing Population

- S. Seshadri and S. Ignacimuthu
Entomology Research Institute,
Loyola College, Chennai 600 034, India

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 10 (2000), 183-184.
While the world has been changing over the last years both politically and economically, and in unexpected and remarkable ways, food security remains an unfulfilled dream for currently more than 800 million people (1). The rising world population will have a bearing on the use of vast resources in future, and has started exerting considerable pressure on agriculture. Forecasts indicate the requirement for increasing land productivity. Recent FAO survey projections estimate the demand for cereals for direct food consumption to grow at 1.9 % p.a. The result is that potential cropland will be created out of grasslands and forests (2). Conventional breeding practices though were promising, the projections say the present production is not sufficient to feed the future world. Modern agriculture, while helped to establish a large food output and prevent hunger, over the years had narrowed down the vast agricultural diversity and replaced the indigenous varieties with improved cultivars that also face various ecological threats (3). Consequently, food security of our people is perched on a choice of narrow genetic diversity that exists in the form of cultivars. Amidst this, our immediate concern is to find supplementary alternatives to feed the growing population sustainably. For this, it becomes important to study various aspects related to food management.

Sustainable food development and preservation of genetic diversity

Sustainable development is a process that aims to meet the needs of the present generation without harming the resources of future generations. Of late, the largely replaceable genetic diversity within species (resources) is declining precipitously over much of earth_fs land surface (4). Now there is a search for genes that encodes various plant protection traits by people with commercial interest. If the exploitation is not managed, our future generations may at lose new traits for their use or may find it difficult to maintain the developed ones in field conditions if they become susceptible to various environmental factors.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 1992) and Global Plan of Action (GPA -1996) discusses various issues viz. Conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use, identification of genetic traits and sharing them equitably for food security, foster development, reduce hunger and poverty, etc. However, they also fail to address requirements for the documentation of indigenous food and dietetics knowledge, and for food consumption practices.

Tradition vs. technology in food development

There should be an equitable balance in using both tradition and technology. Traditional practices are the result of the science of an understanding of the mechanism of the nature by humans over the years that was growing day by day. Even though Technology development would result in higher production, it will have its own impact on the environment and other factors. There is a possibility that a technology once developed can then become obsolete with the rise of another or due to advancement.

Genetic engineering, the projected panacea for world famine, also faces opposition from various quarters. Environmentalists and NGOs list negative impacts on large-scale use and the repercussions the world has to face on their use. It is widely perceived by many, that it may disrupt the traditional land tenure, create genetic pollution, unintended environmental risk and social relations (5). On the other hand, recent declarations from the scientific community brush aside these as misconceptions. Greg Caton (6) of Lumen foods argues that genetically modified foods are good. He equates the anti-Genetically Modified Food campaign to the anti-microwave oven campaigns during 1980s and nullifies the arguments on transgenics as theoretical.

Public perception studies on the risks of agricultural biotechnology have put them with similar unknown dread risks with Pesticides, Radioactive wastes, Nuclear accidents, DDT, fossil fuels and Electric fields. Perception of biotechnology also seem to differ greatly with regard to ethics, morals and values (7) which shows poor understanding of people on their importance and impact of such technologies in real life situations. It becomes imperative to view all technology-related products seriously at least in terms of human safety and sustenance. The human community should also identify where and where not areas of application of technology. As Ehrlich (4) points out, it would be a miscalculation to look to technology for the answer for all our needs. Where halting the growth of human population is not possible and technological obsolescence is prevalent, search for alternatives will only lead to the sustainable feeding of the society. A cocktail recommendation of existing practices and new identifications will add value to the food habits and will help sustain technology for a long term. The challenge before agricultural scientists is to make available nutritionally well-endowed foods, at lowest-cost both to the environment and the consumer (8).

Food Practices and possibilities

In early days, the world was thriving mostly on vegetarian foods only. Occasionally and very rarely, people diverted their attention towards non-vegetarian foods. Presently the increasing consumption of meat in the rich nations has put more pressure on the poor, and the world shows no sign of turning vegetarian (9). Food practices by different people reveal that it is possible to recommend a healthy food system based on the study of dietary composition of different people (Bamji (8)). Punjabis take less rice and more wheat. Whereas Biharis prefer, less wheat and more rice that leads to escalation of food cost and lower intake of calories. It is reported that Asian and Africans consume more food grains and the Americans convert around 69% of food grains to animal proteins (10). To produce animal food it requires 2-5 times more the quantity of food (11). It is impossible in poor third world countries, where this kind of conversion will lead to unsustainability. One interesting study says the earth can support 6 billion people if all were vegetarians, 15 billion if 15% use animal foods and 3 billion if 25% use animal foods (6). It is also possible, the biological value of vegetarian food can be improved, comparable to that of animal foods, by mixing cereals with pulses (8). A judicious combination of cereals, pulses, vegetables and leafy greens can provide adequate protein, in terms of both quantity and quality.

What we can do

Governments, NGOs, Scientists and International agencies while trying to preserve and collect genetic traits, should also study the use of such genetic traits/germplasm in human food consumption and hunger prevention as practiced by ethnic people. To help mankind to have a good and healthy food environment, we must think of alternatives in food consumption. An Integrated Food Management Program should be devised to educate people on the alternative food practices. For this the governments, planners, scientist and non-government organizations should: support cereals (other than paddy and wheat), pulses and millets and motivate/encourage the farmers to cultivate them in their fields at mass level; strive to get subsidies /fix fair price/ for the above agricultural produce and procure them from tribal people and other farmers at a fair rate; educate urban people to include the above in their daily food schedule; motivate people to continue to consume where the above are viewed as prime source of food even now; and introduce land/area based crop promotion programs.

In the coming years the human community will be forced to look back its own food practices also. For this Intensive programs like: Intensive cereal, millet and pulse development; Integrated food diversity evaluation and dissemination; Indigenous food research and analysis; Ethno food and dietetics research; and search for other sources of food (viz. search and production of single cell proteins and environmental friendly transgenic products etc), need to be conceived, mooted and launched at mass level.

It is also urgent that we need to develop a data bank on the ethno and indigenous knowledge on traditional food practices that would provide knowledge on local area based, region based and group based food consumption practices. Governments should encourage such programmes that study the dietetics of tribal and indigenous food practices. Implementation of Food Knowledge Analysis Programmes in addition to agricultural promotion is needed in a big way.

The other alternative is the equitable distribution of food materials. According to Amartya Sen, the root cause of the famine is not the non-availability of resources or food materials but the inability of people to earn money due to joblessness created by the unemployment. Reports say the world now produces more than enough food to feed around 10 million people, the world population estimated for 2040 AD. It was also stated that the missing thing is the purchasing power of the poor and not the physical shortage of food (12). Hence, in addition to the alternative food search it is a must the world countries should find out solutions to distribute their food resources according to the demand and requirement from one area to another. A world food stock register can also be prepared to distribute them at right time, right moment and right place of requirement. It is also necessary for the participating countries to implement poverty eradication programs at least to increase the purchase power of the people. Above all, it is necessary to start thinking on implementation of Global Population Optimization program with worldwide consultation to maintain equitable population.


1. Leisinger, K.M., (1999). Curr. Sci., 76, 488-500.
2. Overand, R.P., (1991). in Food, feed and fuel from biomass, Oxford & IBH Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi.1-14.
3. Levit, J., (1980). Response of Plants to environmental stresses Vol. I & II, Academic Press, New York.s
4. Ehrlich, P.R., (1998). in Biodiversity, National Academic Press, Washington, D.C.
5. Toker, B, (1998). The Ecologists, 1998, 28:254-261.
6. Nature-biotechnology, (2000). 18, 247.
7. Peterson, R.K.D., (2000). American Entomologist, 46(1), 8-16.
8. Bamji, M.S. (1999). Curr. Sci. 76(1) 41-45.
9. Jonathan Cowie, (2000). Nature, 404, 922,.
10. FAO, World Agriculture towards 2010, (1995). 436-438.
11. Sankaran, A, (1992). Indian Farming, October, 4-10.
12. Jonathan R. Latham, (2000). Nature, 404, 222.
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