In 1960, one hectare of land fed two people. By 2050, the same amount of land will have to feed more than six people. The global population is set to exceed 9 billion by 2050. However, we are still unable to feed the 7 billion currently on earth. Each day, over 800 million people go to bed hungry; that is more than the entire population of Europe.
Feeding the world comprises a complex mixture of social, economic and technical challenges, including farming under the pressure of a changing environment, limited availability of land and combatting pests and diseases.
As populations increase and resources such as water and nutrients become scarcer, it is imperative that we develop ways to improve food yields, cut food waste and ensure people have access to a plentiful supply of safe and nutritious food.
The chemical sciences will play a key role by:
- Developing new products to protect crops from pests and diseases
- Improving our understanding of soil so that we can better use this valuable resource
- Improving the efficiency with which plants receive vital nutrients
Watch Professor Tim Benton, the Champion for the UK's Global Food Security programme, explore the challenges of sustainably and equitably providing food for a growing world population in our Public Lecture.
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It is estimated that up to 40% of the world’s food would not exist without crop protection products.
Chemical synthesis has a vital role in creating new products for crop protection. Often, the inspiration for these comes from naturally occurring compounds that can be developed to give effective treatments for weeds, pests and fungal diseases. The world’s leading agricultural fungicide was developed in this way.
As well as developing new pesticides and herbicides, chemistry helps us to understand and utilise interactions between plants and pests in the wild. Many plants emit complex mixtures of chemicals that affect the behaviour of insects, influencing where they go to feed or breed.
A case study from our report Increasing Africa’s Agricultural Productivity illustrates how once scientists understand the basis of these chemical interactions, they can use this to develop practical methods for pest control. This example demonstrates the benefits of multidisciplinary research programmes in developing new crop protection strategies.
Development of azoxystrobin
Watch Dr John Clough, one of the scientists who worked on azoxystrobin, explain how this happened in his lecture Using Chemistry to Improve Agricultural Productivity.
John’s talk introduces the role of chemistry in creating crop protection agents, including how natural product synthesis played a key role in the discovery of fungicide azoxystrobin.
In some parts of the world, soil is being lost one hundred times faster than it is being formed.
As global demand for food rises, much of our land has become severely degraded due to increased farming. However, as well as supporting food production, soil is a complex system that supports nature. It purifies and transfers water, it transforms and transports nutrients and it stores and releases greenhouse gases.
Chemists are helping us understand the soil environment, whether it is the physical weathering that leads to soil formation or the interactions between organisms in the soil and plant roots, based upon the release and detection of specific chemical compounds.
In November 2011, we brought together scientists working on soil science in the UK to agree future areas of research that will be key priorities to make sure that soil science can contribute to the goal of feeding the world. Find out more about their critical assessment of future challenges for soil science in our report Securing Soils for Sustainable Agriculture.
Nitrogen is an essential element in plants and is found, for example, in DNA and chlorophyll. Whilst nitrogen gas (N2) is abundant in the atmosphere, this is of no direct use biologically and must be converted (or ‘fixed’) into other forms, such as nitrates, which plants are able to use. Plants themselves cannot fix nitrogen gas but the process can be carried out by bacteria that live in either soil or the root nodules of legumes.
We have used fertilisers for many years. Whilst they are essential in providing nutrients to crops, they must be used and produced more efficiently. The Haber process has provided a way to convert nitrogen into ammonia, which is then used in fertiliser manufacture. This process requires a large amount of energy to create heat and pressure and whilst we have learned to make it significantly more efficient, it still uses over 1% of the world’s energy. The chemical sciences have the potential to deliver newer catalysts based on cheaper materials that could help to fix nitrogen more efficiently.
Phosphorus is another essential element for plants which is also found in DNA amongst other areas. However, in some soils, up to 80% of available phosphorus is in forms that can’t be taken up and used. In such cases fertilisers are created from rock phosphate, a form readily utilised by plants. Rock phosphate however, is a limited resource, which by some estimates, will be exhausted in the next 50–100 years. Chemists have a role in developing new technologies (eg materials that effectively bind phosphorus from waste streams) to recover phosphorus from waste for potential reuse.
We have worked with scientists across disciplines to look at how chemistry can contribute new technologies for recycling. Recovery of nutrients is a key consideration in soils science.
Our report Resources That Don’t Cost the Earth includes an example of a thermochemical treatment to recover phosphorus from incinerated sewage sludge, providing a suitable source of phosphorus for fertiliser production.
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