Monthly Archives: November 2014

How will we feed the growing population?

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The population of the world is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. Most of this growth will occur in developing countries, so increased wealth and urbanisation will also contribute to increasing demand for food. It is estimated that, by 2050, food production must increase by 70%. This will require policy changes, the support of agriculture, and increased investment by developing countries, or greater donations from elsewhere. It is also estimated that 80% of the increased production in developing countries must come from increased yield, not expanding the amount of farm land.
This brings up several problems. For example, the rate of growth of yields has been declining for several years, and climate change may reduce Africa’s agricultural yields by up to 30% by 2100. An increasing amount of land is also being used for biofuel production. Currently less than 3% of crop growing land is used to produce biofuels, however, could increasing fossil fuel prices change this?

So it is clear that in order to feed the growing population we can not continue as we are. Here are several possible options that could help to increase food production in the future:

Genetic Modification of Rice
In India and Bangladesh alone, 4 million tonnes of rice (enough to feed 30 million people) is destroyed by flooding each year. Most strains of rice will die if they are submerged within 3 days, however, through genetic engineering, a variety that can survive submergence for 2 weeks has been developed. This tolerance is brought about by the overexperssion of the Sub1A gene. Rice crops have also been modified to increase their resistance to herbicides, making it easier to control competing weeds.
In 2013 this flood resistant rice was received by more than 4 million farmers.

Biofortification
Biofortification is the process of breeding food crops with a higher micronutrient content. This technique is mainly used to prevent deficiencies in poor rural communities, without large changes to people’s diets. For example, orange-fleshed sweet potato has been the first biofortified crop to be widely consumed. In many African countries people’s diets are high in the staple foods maize, cassava and sweet potato, but lack diversity. It is estimated that in Africa 32% of children under 5 years old are deficient in vitamin A. The orange-fleshed sweet potato was biofortified with vitamin A, and provided in Mozambique and Uganda by the research organisation HarvestPlus.
HarvestPlus is working on the biofortification of beans, cassava, maize, pearl millet, rice, sweet potato and wheat, to include vitamin A, zinc and iron.

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Eradication of Diseases
Pathogens cause huge losses in both crop and livestock yields. Surveillance, diagnosis and vaccines can all be used to reduce these losses. For example, the rinderpest virus that used once infected livestock, has been eradicated. This virus killed up to 95% of those infected, dramatically reducing meat and milk yields. According to The Department of International Development, it had been a problem for over 10,000 years, but the last known case was in 2001 in Kenya. Live vaccines were initially used over 100 years ago, when serum was taken from recovered animals, combined with blood from infected animals and found to provide long term immunity. After this, vaccines were created that produced fewer symptoms, were heat stable and could be produced in large quantities.
Rinderpest and smallpox are the only two infectious diseases to have been eradicated, but in the future, further eradications may allow greater increases in yield.

The Pig Idea
The Pig Idea is a campaign encouraging the use of food waste to feed pigs. One third of all food is wasted globally, and currently there is a ban in the EU on feeding this waste to pigs. However pigs are instead fed on wheat, maize and soy, which is suitable for humans to eat and is grown on land created by the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. The increasing price of these crops has already put many pig farmers out of business. It is also estimated that around 20 times less carbon dioxide would be emitted by feeding food waste to pigs, rather than allowing it’s decomposition.
However, some countries have already accepted this idea. For example, the Japanese government supports pig farmers that feed their animals waste, and this meat is sold more cheaply in supermarkets.

Growth of Acacia trees in Africa
These trees grow in virtually all environments, from deserts to the fringes of tropical rain forests. This is due to their ability to fix nitrogen from the air and extract water and nutrients from deep in the soil. Many of these trees have been removed to create land for farming.
However, land degradation is a huge problem in areas of Africa, and acacia trees improve structure and fertility in the soil, as well as preventing water runoff that caused erosion, and loss of nutrients. They can provide shade for plants and animals, and can produce pods for animal fodder and many goods.

Sweeteners and Low-Fat Foods – Good or Bad?

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Sugar or Sweeteners?

On average people in Britain consume 22 teaspoons of sugar per week. Sugar has been proven to be addictive as it causes a release of dopamine in the brain. Sugar also causes an increase in cholesterol and therefore raise the risk of heart disease, as well as increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, obesity and possibly cancer.

Sugar substitutes are added to many foods for their sweet taste and because they contain fewer calories than sugar. This sounds like a great way to slow the growth of many health conditions that are associated with our diets. However there have been many studies into the effects of these sweeteners, and the low fat foods that they are often added to, have on our health.

Claims have been made about sweeteners causing cancer, strokes, seizures, low birthweight, high blood pressure, vomiting, dizziness and the list doesn’t stop there. However, none of this has been proven by medical trials so the use of sweeteners in Europe continues to increase.

Aspartame is probably the best known artificial sweetener and it is commonly used as it is 200 times sweeter than sugar and low in calories. However, it has been claimed to be associated with many health problems. However, when consumed, hardly any aspartame enters the blood because when it is broken down into different products that are then absorbed. Does this mean that aspartame is off the hook?

Artificial sweeteners have been linked to changes gut bacteria, resulting in a higher blood sugar level, and therefore a higher risk of type 2 diabetes when the liver does not respond to insulin. For example, one study showed that mice fed on sweeteners broke down more carbohydrate from their diet than normal, which would therefore increase their blood sugar. A study in humans also found that long term sweetener consumption was associated with a change in gut bacteria, and an increase in waist circumference and blood sugar levels.

Are Low-Fat Foods the Healthier Option?

Low-fat foods may sound like a way to cut calories and improve health, however, the lack of fat is usually compensated for by added sugar. There has recently been a large amount of debate about whether sugar could be more damaging than fat, which had previously been blamed for the increase in many health conditions. For example it is now being suggested that sugar may cause a larger increase in cholesterol than fats, leading to an increased risk if heart disease.

There could also be psychological effects cause by these foods. It has been suggested that eating low fat foods could cause cravings at a later time for fats as the body has not received the fats that it expects. I would suggest that it might be possible for sweeteners to have the same effect, maybe causing sugar cravings, and stimulating our appetite? Could it also be possible that even the packaging of the food could have a psychological effect?

However there is also increasing research showing the importance of fat in our diets. For example vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble and therefore fats are required to transport these around the body. Saturated fat in the diet is also necessary for calcium absorption, and has been shown to help the body reduce levels of low-density lipoprotein (a risk factor of heart disease). Saturated fat is also known to be essential to the functioning of the brain, nervous and immune systems, liver and lungs.

Although fat has consistently been seen as the cause of rising obesity levels, it is also known that eating fat results in the production of a hormone called Leptin which causes us to feel satisfied after eating, as it affects thyroid function, and therefore the ability to burn fat and your energy levels.

Further to this, a recent study (September 2014) at Lund University in Sweden found that eating full fat dairy was linked with a 23% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. It was also found that fatty meat was associated with less risk than lean meat.

Therefore it seems that our opinion of fats and sugars is rapidly changing, and we remain unsure of the extent to which sweeteners can cause damage, compared to sugar.