NPR’s “The Takeaway” program recently examined the “The Biggest Challenges Facing America and the World.” The episode included an interview with USDA Chief Scientist and Undersecretary Catherine Woteki on the challenge of being able to feed a world population that is estimated to reach more than 9 billion people by the year 2050.

On behalf of USDA, Dr. Woteki played a key role in the formation of Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN), an international organization which supports efforts to make agricultural and nutritional data available, accessible, and usable for unrestricted use worldwide. She said harvesting such data could be a key to harvesting enough future crops to meet future challenges.

“One of the things that we at USDA already do is to maintain a collection of germplasms from crops and their wild relatives that we have been investigating for many years and keeping over the years as a resource for plant breeders,” Woteki said.

“As scientists have been sequencing the DNA of these various samples that are part of our collection, they’ve also been looking for some genes that convey some very valuable traits – like pest or disease resistance – or the attribute that would make this particular strain of wheat, for example, better for making bread or pastry, and identifying those specific genes and the quality traits that they convey.”

Dr. Woteki, who also discussed open data access efforts in detail in a recent Thomson-Reuters report entitled “How Will We Fill 9 Billion Bowls,” said she was optimistic about the challenges that lay ahead.

“We have a finite amount of farmable land, and some of that already is severely degraded,” she said. “The UN estimates that about a quarter of arable land is currently severely degraded. And we are very much aware of limits on water availability for agriculture. Farmers all over the world are having to deal with more variable weather conditions that are related to climate change.”

“But in the scientific community, we think that we will be able to sustainably intensify the productivity of agriculture to be able to feed that population as projected at mid-century at over 9 billion people, and also to be able to deliver all of the other benefits that are expected from agriculture,” she said. “That includes clean water, the production of feed stocks that are going to be used for biofuels and other industrial chemicals, and doing it in a way that’s going to be sustainable into the future generations beyond the year 2050.”