Location: Providence, RI, U.S.A. The discussion of the real-world implications of global climate change rolled on today with "Climate Change and Food Security," a morning session led by plant breeder Ignacio Romagosa from Lleida, Spain's School of Agricultural and Forestry Engineering. Romagosa gave the BIARI scholars in attendance a look at the history of genetic manipulation with an eye towards the future challenges of feeding the world. A century ago, Romagosa said, it took 400 hours per year to produce enough food to feed one person that year; today, the same amount of food can be produced with 75 minutes of work. However, in that time humans have lost some of the variety in their diets, and global food security difficulties reign.
"Society has never eaten so much and of so good quality," he said, but never has agriculture had so little social recognition. Romagosa said the relatively recent rise of genetic modification is only a small advancement in agriculture's much longer history. Domestication is "the most important genetic modification that has ever taken place...and I would say that domestrication and the origin of agriculture is the origin of society," he said. However, Romagosa devoted most of the first half of his time to the profound impact of the Green Revolution and the precipitous rise of food production in the past half-century. More than 3000 mutant varities of food are currently on supermarket shelves, Romagosa said, and the rate of GM foods is rapidly increasing in the United States. However, in Europe, the idea is swamped in negativity, a trend aided by a poor history of food regulation in the E.U. and media hype of the perceived threat. Romagosa acknowledged the value of organic farming as both an alternative and a way of life for many people, but "the only problem is that organic agriculture cannot be the solution to feed so many people." "Modern agriculture, if you do it properly, can be less damaging to environment than traditional," Romagosa said, but farmers still need to keep standard plant breeding alive alongside biotechnological advances. Rather than siding with "ecofundamentalism" or "techno-fanaticism," the opposing ends of the GM political debate in his terminology, Romagosa encouraged thinking "somewhere in the middle" of that range. The difficulties of plant production are compounded by climate change, he said. In turn, climate science is under attack from politicians and members of the general public, he said, limiting progress just as anti-GM sentiment in Europe may be impeding a solution to world hunger. Anecdotally, one trend rising in parallel with the encroachment of global climate change is a globalized market for buying and selling land, further complicating the picture of food production. China is buying a lot of agricultural land worldwide, including in the United States, but South Korea (with a population 3.6% the size of China's) is buying even more, Romagosa said. He shared maps from a prior study that said severe drops in agricultural yield were possible by the end of the century; in response, he said humans should take two courses of action: mitigation (i.e., of the changes in the environment) and adaptation (i.e. modifying crops to be more suitable for whatever changes the planet might encounter). Romagosa's mnemonic for the products of agriculture - "the seven Fs" - didn't quite translate to English because of how we spell "pharmaceuticals." But he listed the products as "pharma, fragrance, flavor, feed, fiber and fuel," noting that the required surface for production goes up in that order, while the price goes down. This point tied in with the discussion of alternative fuels, as he noted that biofuels are still not price-competitive, despite the declining price of food. Romagosa said he expected that the price of petroleum would continue to increase in the next two decades, but that he hoped scientists could help bring the price of biofuels down to competitive levels by 2030 with the proper investment in research. The conversation doubled back to the issue of European anxiety towards GM foods after Romagosa opened the floor up for discussion and debate. He argued that Europeans in modernized countries can decide to stick to organics if they can afford it, but that the E.U.'s stance affects much more than Europe. Countries like Mali have refused U.S. food aid (including GM grains) because "Europe doesn't eat that," he said. He also touched upon the sequencing of the human genome, a project which marks its 10th anniversary this week. Romagosa raised questions of patenting, the relative benefits of technology in a globalized society and the power of multinational corporations like Monsanto in food production. In the end, though, he concluded that genetic modification can't completely solve famine. "This is not the idea of transgenics," he said.