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Feeding the ten billion

Daniel Barker
27 June 2013
Blog team: 
By the year 2050 there will be 10 billion people in the world - but will there be enough food to feed them? That was the topic of a recent debate at the Royal Society, organised by Kew Gardens.

With people across the world already starving and the population growing by the minute there aren’t many issues which are more serious or more immediate. Gathered to discuss what the answers might be were: Dr Paul Smith and Professor Monique Simmonds from Kew, Dr Geoffrey Hawtin from the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Professor Charles Godfray from Oxford University and Judith Batchelar, Director of Sainsbury’s Brand. After an introduction from Kew’s Director, Richard Deverell, the task of orchestrating the debate fell to Quentin Cooper, the science journalist famous for BBC Radio 4’s 'Material World' and our chair for the evening.


Photo of the panel and audience at the Royal Academy
Andrew McRobb (RBG, Kew)

Panel and audience in the Kohn Centre at the Royal Society (Photo: Andrew McRobb, RBG, Kew)

Charles Godfray started on a note of cautious optimism. Yes, the population is growing, but the rate of growth is slowing down. As people become more affluent they tend to have fewer children and, in general, the human population keeps itself under control. Charles noted that “our” diet – the diet of wealthy westerners as it is now – won’t be available for 10 billion people; that’s not realistic. But if we improve global governance and production systems to use the land we have more efficiently, then we will be able to feed everyone.

Geoff Hawtin echoed Charles’ optimism, noting that 50 years ago the population of India faced starvation and people thought their food production problems were insurmountable. Now the country is thriving and produces enough food to export it. The “Green Revolution” was a triumph and science has shown us how to produce food much more efficiently. The key challenges now are how we give people access to that food and how we ensure its quality.

Geoff noted that fostering genetic diversity is crucial to our success. For example, minor crops and crop wild relatives contain valuable traits which we need to preserve. Geoff highlighted the importance of Kew’s role in protecting and utilising this diversity before handing over to Paul Smith, head of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. Paul emphasised three things Kew can bring to the table: an unrivalled collection of plants and plant material; world-class expertise; and global partnerships.


Photo of Royal Society panel
Andrew McRobb (RBG, Kew)

Panellists: Judith Batchelar, Director of Sainsbury’s Brand; Dr Geoffrey Hawtin from the Global Crop Diversity Trust; Paul Smith, Head of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (Photo: Andrew McRobb, RBG, Kew)

Judith Batchelar then noted that Sainsbury’s currently feeds 24 million people a week – a small number, globally speaking, but one that means the supermarket chain needs a sound understanding of production and supply. Sainsbury’s is investing in research and development in a way that would have been unimaginable 5 years ago and is working with Kew to find sustainable sources, protect ecosystems and make better use of the genetic diversity available.

Finally Monique Simmonds, head of Kew’s Sustainable Uses of Plants Group, pointed out that food security is still a very new challenge. Kew has the expertise to identify quality food sources and ensure they have the traits we value most. This gives us the opportunity to improve food supply, food quality and food safety.

After this point the discussion ranged from agriculture to biotechnology, and from pollinators to population control, via GM crops and many other related issues. Quentin kept the panellists in order and steered the lively discussion with wit and verve. By the end everyone still had more they wanted to say and the conversations continued long after the panellists had left their seats. But the defining message was, yes, we can feed 10 billion people - but only if we seize the opportunities available to us and make the best use of the resources we have right now.

Kew Patrons and other guests enjoying refreshments after the debate (Photo: Andrew McRobb, RBG, Kew)

This event was part of the Kew Patrons calendar. The next debate will be at the Royal Geographic Society on 7 November and is titled 'The World's Most Valuable Bank.' Patrons also enjoy various exclusive social events such as an autumn drinks reception with senior Kew staff.

- Daniel Barker, Patrons Officer - 


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Kew Patrons provide invaluable support to Kew, funding our vital science and conservation work as well as helping maintain our cherished Gardens and iconic heritage buildings. If you would like to find out more about joining the Kew Patrons programme, please contact Daniel Barker.
Telephone: 020 8332 3238 (Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm)

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