Can science win the coming battle against starvation?

FRANKLIN RUSSELL November 7 1959

Can science win the coming battle against starvation?

FRANKLIN RUSSELL November 7 1959

Can science win the coming battle against starvation?

With world population jumping by fifty millions a year, our present food production will be hopelessly inadequate within forty years. Scientists are racing the clock to find new foods and better ways of growing what we eat now


TO MOST CANADIANS and other well-fed people, the Malthusian theory — named for Thomas Robert Malthus, an English economist — has always been a long yawn. Malthus said a little more than a century ago that the world would soon produce more people than it could feed, but the industrial revolution was supposed to have made him a wrong guesser.

Today’s scientists are beginning to fear Malthus was a prophet after all. I hey have only to look at India, where ninety-eight percent ot the population hasn t enough to eat and where about a hundred children arc born every minute. The scientists say the problem wouldn’t be solved simply by shipping some of North America's surplus wheat to Asia. India alone could absorb six hundred large shiploads of grain every year even now. •

The real need, scientists believe, is more money for all the research programs now under way to make more plants and animals yield more food in less time. Some researchers are experimenting with possible new sources of food, things like algae and plankton, slimy, unappetizing sea growths that humans don’t yet eat. With world population increasing by fifty millions a year, we may have to get used to it.

The International Institute of Agriculture in Rome has estimated that the world has about thirteen billion acres suitable for food production. Since it takes about two and a half acres to feed one person adequately for one year, this limits world population to a little over five billion non-hungry people. At the present rate of increase, this limit will be reached before the end of this century.

At the recent International Botanical Congress at Montreal, four thousand botanists expressed growing alarm about the future. Dr. E. C. Stakmann. of the

University of Minnesota, said, the world faces chaos unless governments switch money from arms to food research. The need is vitally urgent.

continued on page 77

The coming battle against starvation

Continued from page 37

Can a combination of scientific developments and government programs save us from starvation? That's the hope of those most familiar with the picture. The fight to get more food from the land has already begun and it takes many forms. In Israel, the weather bureau is trying to use dew for irrigation. Brazil and the United Nations are co-operating in a giant plan to populate the Amazon Valley. Sea water from the Mediterranean and Dead Sea has been used to irrigate shrubs and grasses with partial success. In Asia Minor and Africa, old Roman wells and underground reservoirs—many still in perfect condition — are being brought back into use. In northern Russia, farmers are plowing snow fields to help earlier thawing and allow more time to grow bigger crops. The Canadian Federal Department of Agriculture has an experimental farm reclaimed from the muskeg in Newfoundland.

Thousands of square miles of marshland are being drained in Tasmania, Russia, northern Rhodesia and India. In Canada, there are marshland reclamation projects in the Maritimes and irrigation projects on the prairies. In England, desperately short of farm land, three private individuals recently spent $120,000 building a six-mile wall to reclaim 1,500 acres of estuary marsh.

But these efforts, even when considered collectively, are pathetically inadequate to head off the oncoming food crisis. Ar this moment, we need more than 300,000 acres of new fertile farm land every day to feed the normal increase in world population. But, instead of getting more farm land, we are losing vast areas to expanding cities, four-lane highways and industrial expansion. The United Kingdom has lost two million acres since World War II. The U. S. is losing at least one million acres a year to construction. In Canada, the Gordon Commission predicts that south-western Ontario's rich Niagara peninsula will all be lost to industry by 1980.

With land dwindling and population leaping, the best hope for the future seems to lie in a little-known struggle by science to promote faster and greater growth of plants and animals. In the last ten years this work has doubled the yield of tomatoes per acre in many parts of Canada, trebled the per-acre yield of onions, speeded up the ripening of fruit and stopped fruit from dropping off trees, altered the shape of many plants for more efficient harvesting, and made animals reach marketable size in less time.

The drive for bigger and better crops is advancing on all fronts — chemically, genetically and mechanically. So urgent is the world demand for this food-producing know-how that every new discovery sweeps rapidly round the world. When the U. S. Department of Agriculture developed a new tomato for high rainfall areas recently-, the New Zealand Department of Agriculture began asking for plants before tests were completed or official reports published. A Canadian horticulturist was recently refused permission by the French to take out of France a new type of tomato seed. He smuggled them out anyway.

Agricultural scientists, to get more and quicker growth from plants and animals, have turned to the lowly invisible cell, the many-sided compartment which, in various forms, makes up the bodies of animals and the leaves and stalks of plants. Each cell is a complicated mass of substances, including the genes which determine heredity. The scientists are finding that by manipulating the workings of the cell, they can persuade plants and animals to do what they’re told — grow bigger, faster, fatter, longer.

In 1937. German scientists succeeded in producing a type of rye in which the number of chromosomes (which transmit genes) in each cell had been doubled from 14 to 28. The rye grew thicker and richer, had fifty percent greater productivity. It spread rapidly across the world.

Scientists excitedly predicted that the discovery might herald an era of super growth for all plants. But when they

tried to apply the doubled chromosome idea to other plants, they had trouble. I he Swedes succeeded with clover and boosted clover hay and seed crops by forty percent. Elsewhere, researchers found that their radical fiddling with the cell structure usually destroyed fertility. But the search goes on. The Ontario Agricultural College's field husbandry department is developing a doublechromosome type of barley, which, although low in fertility now, may one day be the answer to the barley-grower’s prayer.

The story of the cell — a miniature drama set against a vast backdrop of starving millions—is most exciting when it touches on hormones. They are tU key to tomorrow's revolutionary cro; In their natural state, hormones are p, ent in plants and animals in tiny qiiar.,,ties, so tiny that the Upjohn Company's Laboratories in the U. S. once produced only two ounces of corticoid hormones from 36,000 hog adrenals. Some hormones are hidden in rare plants in Mexico and Africa, or in coconut milk, horse chestnuts or immature bean seeds.

But their effects—on humans, animals and plants—can he extraordinary. A few grains of a hormone can alter the growth of an acre of crops. The in credible gibberellins are an example They were isolated by the Japanese from a type of rice fungus in 1936, but their commercial possibilities weren't recognized until after World War II. In U. S. experiments, the hormones sent cabbages shooting up fifteen feet and made many other plants grow so rapidly that they killed themselves. For a while, it seemed they might revolutionize world agriculture, producing bumper crops from India to Alaska. But their violent effects have been a disappointment, producing sheer size at the expense of hardiness or other essential qualities. One of their few commercial tasks so far is boosting grape growth. When applied to spinach, they can often produce a second crop from the same roots.

The shortage of natural hormones had, since World War II, sent researchers scrambling for synthetic hormones. One of the most spectacular of these is stil bestrol, a female sex hormone which unaccountably makes animals put on up to thirty percent more weight with thirty' percent less food. Eighty percent of North American cattle growers use ii and last year U. S. beef farmers produced about one billion more pounds o( meat through using it than they woulc have by not using it. If given to cattl throughout the world, stilbestrol could give a tremendous meat increase.

The drive for more efficiency, more production, goes right back into the soil itself. Soil scientists are seeking the best food for every plant.

A dramatic example of what the findings of scientific research can do when applied can be seen in American poultry business, which has squeezed more production out of less food than any other branch of agriculture.

In the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, egg producers are getting more than two hundred eggs from each hen every year, compared with the one hundred they got twenty years ago. Some star performing hens, produced by such leading poultry experts as Don Shaver, of Galt. Ont., have given more than three hundred eggs a year, and egg producers are looking forward confidently to the hen that lays every day of the year. Professor J. R. Cavers, of the Ontario Agricultural College, says. “Egg production is increasing steeply in Canada. But the number of layers is decreasing rapidly.”

The broiler business is equally spectacular. Six pounds of scientifically mixed food can build up a three-pound broiler bird in eight weeks. Chicken farmers are awaiting the day when one pound of food will make one pound of bird.

Also impressive are the developments in vegetable production. In the last ten years, all the traditional commercial varieties of tomatoes have disappeared in Ontario, displaced by newer, fastergrowing. better-yielding plants. Dr. John Wiebe* a vegetable expert at the Department of Agriculture station at Vineland, Ont., estimates that tomato yields have jumped fifty percent per acre. A new vpe of tomato, whole crops of which

icn at the same time, is being develop. * for harvesting by machinery.

Growers are getting earlier production of many vegetables by enclosing young crops in long sheets of plastic or paper, creating miniature greenhouses. Some growers, says Dr. Herman Tiessen, of the O.A.C. horticulture department, are getting faster germination by spreading black plastic over the row's. This raises ground temperatures by three or four degrees. Tiessen has lowered greenhouse temperatures during the flowering periods of some plants. This helps blossoms to set and gives higher yields.

The scientific advances now' coming to the farm were heralded indirectly by an Austrian monk Johann Gregor Mendel, a hundred years ago. He found that by crossing thousands of carefully selected types of pea plants with one another, it was possible to develop and perpetuate an amazing hybrid vigor, in which the new plants not only inherited the best features of their parents but had more strength than either of them. The most famous application of Mendelian laws was in Canada, where the Dominion cercalist. Sir Charles Saunders, laboriously crossed thousands of wheat types and came up with Marquis in 1904. This wheat boosted prairie yields as much as twenty percent and swept round the world.

Soon after, Dr. George Harrison Shull, of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, produced a remarkable hybrid corn. In recent years, U. S. scientists have developed a hybrid onion that has doubled and trebled crops.

, But though these great discoveries arc causing a revolution down on the farm, piling up tremendous surpluses in a few .countries like Canada and the U. S., and making life hard for small inefficient farmers, they still don't give us an answer to the world hunger problem. Malthus’ theory still stands. The capacity of humans to breed is much greater than their capacity to produce food.

One United Nations population expert recently predicted that if world population docs hit five billion by the end of the century, it will leap to ten billion in the following twenty - live years. Guy Irving Burch, director of the U. S. Population Reference Bureau, once calculated that India’s population, if unchecked, would overpopulate the world in less than one hundred years.

There is not even a remote chance, at this time, that we would be able to feed such an increase in population. "What is urgently needed today," said one botanist at the Montreal botanical conference, "is a truly radical method of producing food.”

This is already being tried. Dr. H. A. Spoehr and Dr. Harold W. Milner, of the Carnegie Institution’s division of plant biology at Stanford. California, are trying to make food out of Chlorella pyrettdoiilosa, a primitive plant which looks like a nauseating green slime. It is an algae which grows at tremendous speed and is, in microscopic form, a bulging food vehicle. Originally it consisted largely of carbohydrates and Spoehr and Milner knew that the world had plenty of these. The real deficiency was in proteins and fats. The scientists manipulated the Chlorella by speeding up its growth while cutting back its nitrogen supplies. This forced the plant to produce more protein and fat. They calculate that about twenty tons of dried protein and tw'o tons of fat could be produced, per acre, by the slimy Chlorella — a tremendous increase over present land productivity of any sort. "But.” said one scientist, "it would be dull eating.”

Another possibility is the development of plankton — colonies of animal and plant organisms that teem in the oceans — as a food for humans. Plankton is nutritious and breeds at great speed, but nobody has yet figured out ways of harvesting it from the sea, producing it commercially, or persuading people to eat it.

But it seems clear that such bleak

sustenance must be part of the food of the future. Statistics show that today forty-four percent of all Europeans are underfed, eighty percent of Latin Americans go hungry and ninety-three percent of Africans and ninety-eight percent of Asians arc underfed or starving. And it is exactly these same areas that are chalking up record population increases. The vast grain surpluses of North America could not begin to alleviate this world hunger, even if somebody could figure out a way of distributing them. India alone would need at least two bil-

lion additional bushels of wheat a year

— six hundred fully loaded, large grain ships — to take the edge otl its hunger. As the Indian population grows, the grain shipments would have to be even larger.

The best hope for the world’s hungry

— and perhaps ultimately for all of us

— appears at the moment to be science’s quiet fight to plumb the secrets of the cell, to create miraculous new crops of food for the future. The survival of the human race may depend on how much we are prepared to spend on this research.