Editor’s note: Nick Hamon, head of sustainability for Bayer CropScience North America, which is based in the Triangle, talks about the world’s growing population and efforts to provide enough food, in a discussion with MMI Public Relations. WRAL Tech Wire requested a transcript of the podcast, which is reprinted here,

As you know, on October 31st, the world is recognizing the fact that the global population has reached seven billion people. Can you share a brief history of how the world’s population growth has accelerated over time?

Nick Hamon: Yes, absolutely, I think if you go back to the first billion people, that was registered just after 1800, 1804 is the date I have, but it’s hard to know how accurate it is. And then, it took about 120 years to get to the second billion in fact, about 1927. And that has accelerated dramatically – another 33 years on, to 1960 and we hit three billion, and then, if you move on to today, to 2011, we’re just about to hit seven billion officially on the 31st of October this year.

How quickly is our population expected to grow in the future, and where to you think we’ll see the most explosive population growth?

The estimate is that about by 2050, we’re going to be just over nine billion, 9.1, 9.2 billion, and that’s very dependent on fertility rates and the calculation. So, it could go higher, it could go up to 10 to 11 billion. And it could be slightly lower. But the rate of change is actually declining. Right now, we’re hitting an additional billion every, somewhere between 12 and 15 years. And then, once we hit 2050, to hit the next billion will take somewhere around 50 years, it’s being estimated. So, very dependent on fertility rates around the world, particularly in developing countries. So where is that growth? And that growth is pretty dramatic in Africa and Asia, modest in North America, modest in Latin America, and modest in Europe and even some negative growth rates in parts of Europe like France have been projected. But Africa and Asia are where we’re going to see the massive growth.

What impact will this population growth have on our food supply?

Well, if you take an average, that means we’re adding about 18 million people a year. It is pretty concerning, considering the United Nations estimates that we have about a billion people today who are in poverty, do not get enough to eat. So, that means there will be about two billion more mouths to feed by 2050, which is equivalent to about two Indias, the population of two Indias.

Back in the year 1950, we had about one and point three acres to feed 2.5 billion people, so 1.3 acres per person. If you project that forward to 2000, when the world population was about 6.1 billion, that meant you had .7 of an acre to feed one person. If you go forward to 2050, assume a population of 9.2 billion, that means we have to grow food for one individual on about .4 acres, which is a dramatic change in productivity from where we are today or where we were in 1950.

Something we do know, that rising income in developing countries, or in any country, in fact, leads to dramatically changing diets. So as people get richer and aspire perhaps towards perhaps the middle classes, you see a dramatic increase in consumption of meat. Meat is somewhat inefficient as a conversion of food into calories. So, that is going to complicate the situation that we have today. So not only have we got a dramatically increasing population, we have a population that’s going to dramatically change its diet as it goes. And that puts even more resources on the food industry and agriculture than just population alone.

I think a fact that very few people would actually realize is that we grow 80 percent of our global calories with just 12 species of crops and corn, wheat and rice worldwide provide 50 percent of our calorie intake worldwide. Something we’ve done very well is dramatically increase the yield of corn through time, particularly in North America. Not so much in developing countries and that’s something we have to focus on. But the yield of wheat, the annual increase of wheat yields we’re seeing, which historically have been around 2 to 3 percent, we’re starting to see a decline and that’s telling us that maybe we’re reaching a theoretical maximum yield limit for some of these crops or it’s going to become more difficult to increase yield on a unit acre basis. But 50 percent of our global calories come from just three crops, corn, wheat and rice.

Tell us what else needs to be done to ensure that we have the resources needed to feed an additional two or three billion people by 2050.

One thing that is clearly recognized with this growing population is that we are heading towards an agricultural productivity gap. Agriculture post the agricultural revolution around 1960 has been very efficient at increasing yields on a unit acre of land through time, and that’s through technology and innovation. And what we know now is that we will have to double agricultural output by around 2050 and to do that we’re going to have to free the environmental footprint of agriculture. So that means we’ve just got to become significantly more productive on an acre of land and whatever tools and technologies we need to do that will have to be developed. One single tool is not going to get us there. We need many tools in the toolbox and I think that’s what companies like Bayer and also researchers in academia are looking into right now.

We’re going to have to do thing perhaps in a different way than we’ve done before. So obviously, we’re going to have to increase our investment. Investment in research is absolutely essential, both in the private and in the public sector. We need to improve the crop varieties that offer high yields but less input such as water and fertilizers, and we need to focus on things such as drought tolerance and heat tolerance because clearly climate change is going to be a complicating factor in how we manage agriculture going forward.

Modern agriculture is going to be essential to helping us resolve the global food crisis, particularly over the next 50 years, and companies like Bayer and the few remaining research-based agrichemical companies are really focused on a number of technologies. One is new trait discovery both through conventional breeding but also through genetically modified crops, increasing yield, increasing quality, looking towards plant health – healthy plants do not produce good yield so how do you improve dramatically the health of a crop. Drought tolerance, heat tolerance, the ability to grow plants in areas where water is unavailable or there is a significant lack of water – also moving towards those with high-performance chemistry. This means that very small amounts of products are required to control pests, diseases and weeds. Delivery systems, seed treatments, technologies where you can actually target the product straight to the seed and reduce the amount of chemical per unit area. Improving nutrient uptake efficiency is a key target for research organizations worldwide, and also looking into soil and water conservation.

Something else that’s being studied of course is carbon sequestration. Crops worldwide do sequester a significant amount of carbon. Much of that is released later on in the growing cycle through harvest, but actually plants, crops do put carbon back into the soil and that’s of significant consideration.