The Age of Humans The Age of Humans

How Will We Feed 9 Billion People on Earth of the Future?

This week’s Generation Anthropocene reveals how seeds on ice and poisonous tubers may offer hope for food security

Ensuring a bountiful harvest will require some ingenuity. (Rick Gayle Studio/Corbis)
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Putting food on the table is one of the most basic human endeavors, and we've funneled plenty of innovation and ingenuity into the task. Farming is so intrinsic to our existence that some scientists think we can peg the start of the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans, to the dawn of agriculture some 11,700 years ago.

Right now, though, climate change is mixing with environmental decline, wasteful cultural practices and a booming number of humans to alter the global food supply. In the future, with projected populations of at least 9 billion, will good food become much harder to find?

This week on Generation Anthropocene, producer Leslie Chang checks in with Ola Westengen, the coordinator of operation and management for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Opened in 2008, this plant repository sits deep inside a frozen mountain in an archipelago midway between the north coast of Norway and the North Pole. The vault's mission is to collect and preserve seeds from as many varieties of plants as possible, to serve as a safety net against the loss of genetic diversity among crops.

The seed vault collects samples from governments, private groups—even other seed banks—storing them in safety and free of charge. The facility currently houses more than 850,000 samples, and they have room for millions more.

"So every time I enter that hole where the seeds are stored, I’m full of respect," says Westengen. "At least when it comes to crop diversity, I don’t think there is any room in the world that is so biologically diverse. It is really fantastic."

Hear more about how the seed vault works, and find out about some of its more surprising donations, here:

While Svalbard keeps seeds safe in deep freeze, researchers in the field are looking at how rising temperatures and other aspects of climate change are affecting the crops we're growing today. Also in the episode, producer Miles Traer speaks with Ros Gleadow of Monash University in Australia, who is studying the effects of rising carbon dioxide on crop nutrition. Gleadow thinks that one staple crop in particular, cassava, has the potential to help with food security in a changing world.

"Cassava’s an amazing crop," she says. "You could call it a climate change-ready crop. So, it grows incredibly well under drought conditions. It does really well under heat conditions." In addition, the more CO2 in the air for the plant to breathe, the higher the yield.

But don't start perfecting your cassava soufflé recipe just yet. The hitch is that the tuber gets less nutritious as CO2 rises while simultaneously producing more cyanide—putting nearly one billion at risk of cyanide poisoning. According to Gleadow, there is a relatively simple solution. Check out the full episode to hear more.

About Victoria Jaggard

Victoria Jaggard is the science editor for Smithsonian.com. Her writing has appeared in Chemical & Engineering News, National Geographic, New Scientist and elsewhere.

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