1. Skip to content

Careers in Food Security Span Several Disciplines

Source: Science Magazine, Cath Janes

On the list of pressing global issues, food security is surely at the top. "By 2030, the world's population will be 8.3 billion people and we must produce 50% more food than we do now to feed them," warns John Beddington, the U.K. government's chief scientific adviser, in an interview with Science Careers. "In addition to that, we must increase the availability of water by 30%. We also lose 30% of crops through pests and diseases yet cannot resort to pesticides because of the impact they have upon the environment. It's the perfect storm."

All these problems need scientific solutions — and that means opportunities for scientists. "It's a great time for any scientist to come into food security. It's a long-term science, but now is the time to get on the ground," says Denis Murphy, head of the biotechnology unit and biological research at the University of Glamorgan, Pontypridd, in South Wales.

Plant physiologist Ian Dodd studies how drought-tolerant plants work, information that's useful for developing sustainable crops in hot countries. But he didn't intend to end up working in food security. "I started in plant science and learned about food security through that," he explains.

These days, the research and projects Dodd works on all relate to water efficiency. As a research fellow at Lancaster University, he studies the chemical signals plant roots send to leaf pores. These signals determine how the plant regulates water use and growth, which affect crop yields. Dodd's work has applications in saving water for irrigation managers and could lead to a reduction in the water requirements of crops such as wheat and potatoes.

For one of his projects, he does controlled studies for colleagues who work with farmers who grow vegetables. "They report the effects of drought upon crops, and I tackle these in the lab," Dodd says. "We then adapt their irrigation as a result, it means my research can be applied."

For an upcoming study, Dodd will work with scientists in Lebanon to plant 2000 seed potatoes, observing how the plants grow and develop when subjected to different irrigation regimes. "Water efficiency is a common thread of my work," Dodd says. "How can we improve it through the use of plants? It will have a real impact upon food security, which has put plant scientists right back in the spotlight."

David Kalule Okello heads up a national research program, yet he earns less than $6000 per year. He's continually frustrated by the poor lab facilities and paucity of science funding in Africa, yet he won't consider working in the United States or in Europe. He has lived through three civil wars, yet he's only 33. Despite these extraordinary circumstances, Okello is one of East Africa's most promising weapons in the battle against hunger.

It's a responsibility that Okello shoulders with enthusiasm and grace. He's the head of Uganda's national groundnut [peanut] research program, based at the National Semi-Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI) in Soroti. Peanuts have become an important, high-protein food crop in the country, as well as a valuable cash crop because the nuts can be processed into a variety of products from peanut butter and pastes to oil.

The demand for scientists with expertise in the agriculture/food sector is likely to increase in the next decade, says Celia Caulcott, director of innovation and skills at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. "There are also skills shortages in areas of expertise such as plant and crop breeding, plant physiology and pest management, large animal physiology and health, soil science, and horticulture," she says.

So opportunities to work in food security are available and likely to increase. Yet the route into such a career starts at a much earlier stage. "You have to ask yourself how you can get into food security," U.K. science adviser Beddington notes. "There are lots of disciplines relating to food security, and that makes it an attractive career. Yet you have to understand the science as well as how your work is applicable to food producers in tackling a lack of water or their fight against pests."

Finally, food science means being part of a collaborative effort. The answer to the problem is not the preserve of one discipline or scientist but will be found where several disciplines work together to tackle the biological, ecological, environmental, geographical, agricultural, and even sociological, economic, and financial barriers to feeding the world.

"A multidisciplinary approach is needed to tackle the problem," says Murphy of the University of Glamorgan. "A food security career is a combination of cutting-edge science and social opportunities to work in other countries — and all for the good of humanity, too. That's a rare combination in any discipline, and to see the results of your work in front of your eyes makes food security a rewarding career choice."

Date Published: 2/12/10