Keeping the World's Food Supply Secure

For millions of people, the food they eat could kill them. But they may not have a choice. Daniel Chamovitz  has made it his mission to change that.

“If rice is the only thing someone can afford, then they’re going to eat it until they’re full but they’re not getting full nutrition,” said Chamovitz, director of the Manna Center Program in Food Safety and Security at Tel Aviv University. “When there are 2 billion people who are sustained, but are suffering from a vitamin deficiency, that affects their development and hurts the entire economy.”Chamovitz, a leading plant geneticist, visited JFN headquarters in New York on Sept. 8, where he spoke about the Manna program’s interdisciplinary approach to food security—often defined as when people always have both physical and economic access to food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences.

The U.N. World Food Program calls malnutrition the single-largest contributor to disease worldwide. It’s not that there’s a food shortage—the U.N. says there’s enough food on Earth to feed all 7.2 billion of us—it’s getting the right food grown where it is needed.

The Manna Center has experts in plant biology, public health, public policy, and economics collaborate to foster solutions and break the grip of malnutrition. Chamovitz said viewing food security through this lens is not just a good idea, it is all but essential.

“There are agronomic and policy solutions and they are intertwined,” Chamovitz said in an interview. “If by breeding, for example at TAU, a strain of wheat that has more zinc and higher protein per grain, that can clearly have an effect on the status of people who would be eating the grain.”

Chamovitz led a summer institute at TAU with 100 students from nine countries, including five African nations. Africa is a continent where Chamovitz said Israel has a “wonderful reputation” because “we’re not afraid of getting our feet dirty” and working on field research with local farmers and scientists.

It’s a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s, when Israel was a major player in the realm of international development and regularly sent agriculture experts to other countries. Budget cutbacks and the severing of diplomatic relations following the Yom Kippur War changed that. However, by necessity, the pendulum is shifting.

Israel is a great example of what can work, Chamovitz said, given that the nation produces 80 percent of its own food even though just 20 percent of the land is arable. “There is no way logically that Israel should be a food-secure country. It doesn’t make sense. But food security was an integral part of Zionist history. What’s the first thing we did? Try to farm the land and provide our own milk, provide our own grains.”

Now the Manna Center looks to achieve those goals elsewhere, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where it has focused its efforts. Chamovitz, who also leads TAU’s Manna Center for Plant Biosciences, is excited by a project that will examine several thousand wild strains of wheat, barley and oats, and then determine where and how they can be used to provide maximum yields and nutrition. The food scientists are using the same genomic technology and DNA sequencing as cancer researchers.

The project’s enormous potential to address long-term food security is tempered by the fact that it is time-consuming—it could take decades to play out--and costly. Chamovitz has no choice but to take the long view, but likes what he sees.

“Look what we’ve done over the past 50 years. The percentage of hungry people has gone down even as the population has increased. That should give us great hope,” Chamovitz said. “If we continue the research then we will be able to deal with the problems, I have no doubt about that.”