Sunshine to feed the world

30th Aug 2013

By Sarah Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

Food security is one of the greatest challenges facing this generation; with soil degradation, crop losses due to climate change, and water scarcity, combined with a population at an upwards of seven billion people. With this knowledge, many academic and political institutions are gathering the brightest minds to find innovative solutions to the food issue.

The Sunshine Project out of the University of Sheffield, “aims to unite scientists working in both pure and applied sciences to harness the power of the Sun and tackle the challenges of meeting the food and energy needs of the world’s population in the context of an uncertain climate and global environment change,” according to a press release circulated last month.

Essentially, the study is looking for ways to optimise natural processes, such as photosynthesis and leaf form, as well as teaming with archaeologists in order to better understand historical agriculture and why certain crops were domesticated over others.

As for photosynthesis, the most common metabolic pathway is C3 carbon fixation, accounting for 95% of plant biomass on the planet, but this type of pathway causes plants to lose all but 3% of the water taken up by their roots. These plants do not do particularly well in hot climates, which is why the Sunshine Project is researching ways to incorporate the C4 metabolic pathway into crops. C4 photosynthesis uses a more efficient enzyme to fix carbon dioxide in mesophyll cells and has the ability to reduce water loss, allowing the plant to withstand more extreme climates.

The project supports genetic modification of seed in order to reduce pests and pathogens that can decimate crops. There is a lot of controversy over genetically modified crops, most widely grown in the US Midwest and subsidised by the Federal Government. These monoculture crops, most commonly corn and soya, have shown to have lower yields than their non-GM counterparts, according to a peer-reviewed journal article published in The International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability which compared GM crops grown in the US Midwest to non-GM Western European crops. Though the Sunshine Project is looking for different forms of genetic modification, separate from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soya beans and maize, tampering with the genes of seed can be risky and may not provide sound benefits. GM foods may also have unknown health consequences for consumers. A controversial French study showed tumours in rats that ate GM maize.

The project has also proposed the use of human excrement as fertilizer, which may come as a seemingly disgusting surprise to many, yet a fairly practical solution to the waste problem. That is because human waste teems with nitrogen and phosphorus, which are the limiting nutrients necessary for crop production. PNK (Phosphorus, Nitrogen, Potassium) fertilizers are very widely overused in modern agriculture and their runoff has polluted waterways causing algal blooms and subsequent dead zones in many of the world’s major waterways, including the Gulf of Mexico. If human waste is properly treated, it can fertilize many new crops and allow for a reduced reliance on mined phosphorus and nitrogen. The idea of using what we already have instead of trying to find it elsewhere needs to be revisited in a realistic conversation regarding sustainability.

Many of the innovations have been made in order to optimise cereal crop yields, in particular. Cereal crops include wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, rye, sorghum, and some millet. Though these are widely consumed around the world, healthy diets should also include fruits and vegetables. Variety is necessary for nutrient dense diets. Calories are one thing, but getting the proper proportion of protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins to all of the world’s people is not far behind in importance. Diets from a young age directly correlate to brain health, and providing simple carbohydrates to sustain populations will not solve the problem. There needs to be widespread educational initiatives for people to grow their own food on small scale urban farms, instead of having them rely on genetically modified monocultures for their sustenance, even if only to subsidize their food costs.

Though the Sunshine Project has a commendable mission, initiatives to reconnect people with their food are essential. Education is the way to help the impoverished, by exposing them to the resources they already have. Often, it is assumed that technology will save the world, but sometimes shifts back to smaller-scale production that empowers people can have a greater effect. Regardless, a re-think of the current food system is necessary for tackling famine correlated to climate change and an ever-growing global population.



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