Helping feed the world

Fred Davies, regents professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M University, spoke to the KAUST community in a keynote address as part of this year's Enrichment in the Fall program.

​​​​On October 17, Fred Davies, regents professor from the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M University, spoke to the KAUST community as part of the University’s Enrichment in the Fall program about the growing needs and problems in feeding the world’s population.

In his keynote address ​entitled “Agriculture, Food Security & Sustainable Intensification: Can We Feed the World?,” Davies also discussed how we source, cultivate and distribute food worldwide.

Davies’ engaging and thought-provoking lecture focused on the challenges of feeding the global population, which is projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050. According to Davies, the largest and most pressing outstanding challenge is that current food production will need to grow 70% to meet these increased demands. In other words, according to Davies, “food issues could become as politically destabilizing after 2050 as energy issues are today.”

A varied system approach to food production

For the first time in human history, Davies said, food production will be limited on a global scale by the availability of land, water and energy. He highlighted the need for a greater focus on what he dubbed "'sustainable intensification,' which is doing more with less: less land, input of water, fertilizer and chemicals—something that is environmentally and economically viable," he said.

Davies stressed that forecasted increases in crop productivity from the combined fields of biotechnology, genetics, agronomics and horticulture will not be sufficient to meet food demands, and resource limitations will constrain the global food system.

“Going forward, it’s going to have to be a varied system approach to food production so we can continue to feed the world. There are increasing hunger and food security problems in the world. One in eight population-wise suffers from chronic undernourishment. Food security is tethered to the nexus of nutrition, food, energy, water, health, sanitation and smart policy,” Davies explained.

He also drew attention to the fact that something as trivial as how a certain item of food looks can be enough to see it go to waste, imploring us to think more about how we interact with food, noting, “We waste way too much food. A third of all food goes to waste because of how it looks."

Davies also felt that there is too much of an emphasis on beef production and consumption globally, which he feels is an antiquated and somewhat inefficient form of nutrition on a mass scale, and an area where alternatives to meat should be brought to the fore.

“We’re consuming way too much meat—more than is needed—and we need to look at alternatives. Beef production is a really inefficient food production system. For every pound of meat you get, you need to provide 15 pounds of fodder/food to get it,” he said.

In a presentation loaded with intriguing facts and figures, Davies noted that Saudi Arabia is among some of the top consumers of groundwater and food imports worldwide.

“Saudi Arabia, along with China and the U.S., is one of the nations that is using groundwater at an alarming rate, and this is water that of course cannot be renewed. 1.5% of Saudi Arabia is arable, and due to these conditions, Saudi Arabia is 65-70% dependent on imports to meet its food requirements,” he said.

Food for thought

The most stark figures of the evening had to do with the ongoing problem of starvation and malnutrition not only only in the developing world but also in the developed world.

“One in six Americans relies on some sort of food support for their daily intake—this is not just a developing world problem. We cannot tolerate a world where nearly 1 billion people go to bed nightly hungry,” Davies said.

Davies told the crowd he was under no illusions as to how long it would take to get people to change their food consumption trends and dietary beliefs, but he said he saw the future of food awareness lying with future generations.

“If we’re going to change dietary habits, it’s not going to happen in just one generation. We need to educate young people on the importance of nutrition. Mobilizing a new generation of university students to try to address the coming problem of trying to feed 9 billion people is essential,” Davies explained.

- By David Murphy, KAUST News