Agriculture must do more with less around the world

Oct 18, 2013
by WLJ

— Global production on track, but local shortcomings exist

At the Global Harvest Initiative’s fourth annual report on the future of Global Agricultural Productivity, held last week, speakers grappled with how to increase agricultural production with fewer resources and deal with unequal global food production.

African hunger issues will remain a troublesome global problem that cannot be solved by continued acreage expansion, the report concluded. In contrast, South America—specifically, Brazil—could step up to meet China’s ever-growing demands for food.

The report, which was released on the first day of the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue, attempts to calculate the agricultural productivity growth rate of the world’s countries with an aim to monitor progress toward ramping up food production by 2050. According to the most recent United Nations forecast, 2050 is when many economists expect the world’s population to reach 9.55 billion. The rate is a ratio of agricultural outputs—crops and livestock products—to inputs such as land, labor, machinery, fertilizer and water.

The Global Harvest Initiative was created by major agribusinesses in 2009 and rolled out at the World Food Prize. The initiative’s members include Accenture, Du- Pont, Elanco, IBM, John Deere and Monsanto.

This year, the report estimated that global agricultural productivity (GAP) is growing at an average rate of 1.81 percent, just beyond the 1.75 percent rate that the Global Harvest Initiative established in 2010 as the necessary growth rate to meet global food demands by 2050.

That puts the world roughly on target to produce enough food, but this encouraging productivity rate does not mean the planet will beat hunger in the next 40 years.

“Globally, we’re on track but we want to spotlight that not all regions are on track; there are regional gaps,” said Erica Seitzer, the marketing communications coordinator for DuPont Pioneer, and a senior associate at the Global Harvest Initiative. Many countries’ agricultural systems—particularly those of low income countries—are lagging far behind their ballooning resource demands.

Speakers at the report’s release stressed the need for agricultural growth that doesn’t rely heavily on expanding the use of increasingly shrinking resources of land and water. “The goal here is to obtain more output from the existing resources,” Seitzer explained.

According to the report, Sub-Saharan Africa’s food needs will increase by roughly 3 percent each year in the next two decades. If the continent maintains its current productivity growth rate of only 1 percent, the GAP report predicted it will only produce a quarter of the food needed to feed its people in 2030.

The solution for these food crises has to involve the individual farmer and careful growth that local regions can sustain, speakers noted.

“Something we’re really seeing is that a lot of gains in productivity are coming from expansion,” said Ruth Campbell, a poverty reduction and economic growth specialist with nonprofit group ACDI/ VOCA.

“In West Africa, with rice, in the last 20 years, productivity has doubled but yield has only increased by 20 percent. So the real increases have come from extra areas under cultivation.”

The world’s average annual productivity growth rate got a major boost from countries such as Brazil and China, which are averaging 4.3 and 2.97 percent productivity growth rates, respectively. In the past eight years, the report pointed out, China has doubled its spending on agricultural research and development, a trend that will likely continue.

However, even with strong growth and government support, China is set to only meet 72 percent of its food demands by 2030, and im ports will probably have to make up the difference.

Fortunately for the Chinese, the report predicted South America will exceed domestic food needs by 50 percent in the next 20 years, an estimate driven by the expectation that Brazil will be producing twice the food it needs by 2030. This surplus could well be China’s best bet for feeding its meathungry middle class, which the report estimated will balloon to 950 million in two decades.

The key to success for countries such as Brazil, the report said, is the willingness and ability to invest heavily in agricultural research, technology and infrastructure, and adopt economic policy that encourages foreign investment, local business expansions and global trade.

Land and water availability remain the two most concerning limits on producing enough food. Irrigation technology such as variable rate irrigation and moisture-sensing probes, drought-tolerant crops and conservation practices such as no-till will become more and more necessary in coming decades. — Emily Garnett, DTN