Thursday, October 30, 2014
5

Starved for Science

AMSTERDAM – In the Mekong Delta, farmers obtain 6-7 tons of rice per hectare in dry seasons and 4-5 tons per hectare in wet seasons, using fast-maturing rice varieties that allow up to three consecutive yields annually. By contrast, West African rice farmers harvest only 1.5 tons per hectare of traditional upland rice annually, while other cereals yield no more than one ton – a figure comparable to yields in medieval Europe.

Such disparities are unnecessary. Indeed, the proliferation of agricultural technology – from more efficient machinery to higher-yielding or more robust crop varieties – has the potential to narrow the productivity gap considerably, even if differences between climates and producers remain.

For example, a new variety of African upland rice, Nerica, triples annual yields. Likewise, over the last four decades, improved breeding methods, higher-quality feed, and better veterinary care have more than doubled average milk production worldwide. Nevertheless, regional discrepancies remain massive: cows in the Netherlands can produce roughly 9,000 liters of milk annually, while Zebu cattle in the tropics produce only about 300 liters.

The need to increase agricultural output becomes more urgent every day. The global population is set to reach nine billion by 2050, while people in the developing world – where nearly all of the population growth will occur – are seeking more varied diets. By 2030, demand for animal products will double, with overall food demand rising by 40%.

Science has much to contribute to global food security. While genetic modification is not essential to feed the world, it does provide significant advantages, enabling scientists to introduce or enhance traits – virus resistance in cassava, for example, or improved digestibility of feed – that cannot be realized with conventional breeding.

To be sure, raising yields is not the same as feeding the world. If a vast swath of the population cannot afford the food that is produced, the size of the yield is irrelevant. While nearly one billion people have been lifted out of poverty (defined by the World Bank as an income of less than $1.25 per day, in purchasing-power-parity terms) in the last 20 years, such progress will prove more difficult for the next billion.

Given this, policymakers should redouble their efforts to reduce poverty by supporting sustainable and inclusive economic growth. They should commit to advancing sound agricultural management, maintaining well-functioning markets, and increasing investment in agriculture. At the same time, these objectives, while pressing, should not obscure the need to focus on yields – increases in which have accounted for three-quarters of food-production growth in recent decades.

Fortunately, the most significant potential limitations – land, water, and nutrients – seem unlikely to constrain global output excessively in the foreseeable future. But, while none is in short supply globally, local shortages may occur.

Although crop land per capita will continue to decline, more arable land is available worldwide than previously thought. The example of the use of the Brazilian cerrado, once considered useless, augurs well for the African savannas. Underused land reserves also exist elsewhere in South America, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.

A more immediate challenge is ensuring that crops receive sufficient water, which requires building and maintaining efficient irrigation systems to stabilize yields and enable farmers to harvest an additional crop each year. As it stands, only 4% of arable land in Sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, compared to 38% in Asia. While the Middle East will face serious water shortages, Africa, where most population growth is set to occur, contains numerous unexploited water sources.

Fertilizer use has become significantly more efficient in recent years, a trend that will continue. Reserves of minerals like phosphate will remain plentiful in the next decades, and nitrogen is not limited. Technology to extract nutrients from waste already exists, reducing dependency on mining. Moreover, pigs and poultry are ideal food-waste processors, and their effluents can serve again as nutrient and energy sources, turning future food chains into interconnected production cycles.

Perhaps the most pressing constraint on agricultural production is the impending labor shortage, as rural young people, who traditionally comprise the agricultural labor force, flock to cities. With small farmers unable to provide sufficient surpluses, agricultural production will become increasingly consolidated and mechanized, raising fossil-fuel consumption, which will have to be offset by the introduction of more efficient technologies.

Of course, future food production is subject to significant uncertainty. Population growth may not slow down as rapidly as expected. Protectionism threatens open markets and GDP growth. And price volatility, whether triggered by drought or short-sighted national policies, could deter investments in agriculture and decrease the poor’s purchasing power.

Whether climate change will be a source of yield uncertainty in the coming decades remains unclear as well. Although precipitation may be affected, higher temperatures would enable agricultural production in colder regions, and CO2 is known to bolster plant growth, even in dry areas.

In addition, while food hygiene, traceability, and labeling are improving, any amount of negligence when it comes to food safety could have far-reaching consequences in the complex and interconnected global food chain. Rising demand for animal products highlights microbiological risks, with animal-welfare measures sometimes creating new hazards. For example, open pens for poultry may increase the spread of communicable diseases like avian influenza.

Despite such risks, the outlook for future food security is promising. Our food is safer and our diets are more diverse than ever before; production methods are becoming increasingly sustainable, clean, and efficient; and we are constantly becoming better at protecting biodiversity.

Yet many in Europe and the United States – which have benefited most from agricultural advances – are mistrustful of this progress, viewing scientific advancement and free trade as a dangerous combination. To the extent that this perception impedes progress, it is the real threat to global food security.

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  1. Commentedniyi P

    A critical factor that is often overlooked or sometimes silently swept under in many analysis of agriculture in Africa is the state of (and need to foster) local research and learning in this area - agriculture. It is always assumed the needed technology, varieties and approaches must always come from outside. An equally urgent need is there to develop local capacity for research, learning and extension. All these simply plummeted in these countries with the structural adjustment. And certainly many other internal factors have worsened situation of things. But let's build people too.

  2. CommentedMark Robertson

    This is actually reasonable clear. Many aspects of agriculture will be impacted from rainwater for crops (too little, and too much), to impacts on anthesis. Referring to yields you need to be more specific and refer to what individual crops will be impact. The relative constancy of our climate over the last 5000 years is what has made human civilisation possible. An increase in climatic variation has the potential to do massive harm.

    Crops that could be grown will no longer be able to be grown, and farmers around the world will need to change the crops they traditionally grew as they will no longer be adapted to the novel climates they will be experiencing.

  3. CommentedMark Robertson

    Why do agriculturalists always see savannas as useless? One needs to look at the opportunity cost, they may actually generate more income from tourism and game farming, these may be a far better use of the land at significantly less water cost than conversion to huge fields of soybeans, over the long-term. Conversion to huge fields of monocrops tends to solely benefit a rich elite and associated corporations (see Brazil and its Gini Coefficient).

  4. CommentedMark Robertson

    Zebu are very well adapted to the climate and the pests and diseases, whereas Friesan cows from the Netherlands would not do very well. This is not a good comparison. Given that water availability is a major constraint, and is liable under climate change to get worse, dramatically increasing milk production in the tropics is unlikely to work. Elimination of tax havens might be far more beneficial to developing countries, then they would have the money to invest in their agricultural sectors.

  5. CommentedMaria Carmencita Morales

    The dissemination of new technologies would also be effective if the private sector was involved. Given that government has limited resources, it can facilitate the commercialization of such technologies (especially advances in biotechnology) to the small farmers.

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