December 20, 2012
If an increasing world population is to be adequately fed, food production has to be increased. Estimates vary on just how big the increase has to be. They range between increases of 45-50 per cent on the optimistic side, to the worst case scenario of over 80 per cent by the mid-century. What most analysts agree is that this increase – 1.5 to 2 billion tonnes of grain – has to be achieved without damage to future production capacity. Meeting this major challenge was the theme of a recent Chatham House symposium.
Food supply is not a serious problem for the relatively prosperous citizens of Europe. But, it is for the people of the less developed countries of Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia where supply has to be increased, either by greater production or more imports. Output and food security must increase in these most needy areas, where the population will increase the most. Because of the climatic and other risks which food production is and will be subject to, the safety net of production from the developed countries has also to be increased in order to fill inevitable gaps in the production of these most food -needy regions.
Without increased production, food shortages will be apocalyptic for those without adequate incomes. As I argue in my latest book, if agricultural productivity and production does not increase, the numbers of under-fed and starving could easily double over the next four decades. Food prices, even for those who could still afford to buy, could rise by and remain more than 50 per cent greater than in the second decade of the 21st century.
A major factor in increasing food demand is the need for increased imports by increasingly economically rich but land resource poor Asian countries. World Bank figures quoted at the Chatham House event indicate that China could increase its meat demand by close to 30 per cent by 2030, putting heavy pressure on domestic animal feed supply, leading to significantly increased soybean imports over the next two decades and beyond.
What is certain is that achievement of greater food security will not be helped by further extension of organic farming. Professor Tim Benton from Leeds University cited a recent German study which indicated that if the organic crop area in the EU was increased by 20 per cent this would result in lower yields, which would demand 10.2 million more hectares of additional ‘indirect land use’ outside Europe to meet the consequent short fall in food and feed crops within Europe.
There is, in any case, considerable doubt about the availability of such land. Professor Sir Gordon Conway questions FAO estimates of global availability of an additional 3 billion hectares of land for food production. Urbanisation and potential environmental stress would indicate that the actual figure would be very much less. The inevitable conclusion is that increased output has to come mainly from increased productivity. More from less, or at least more from what land is already cultivated. “This means increased yields on the same amount of land”, said Conway, “Using less water, fertilisers, pesticides, and lower carbon emissions”.
Not only more science is needed, but also the wider application of better methods. Yields vary massively between the poorest and the best. Recent studies indicate that differences in fertiliser use, irrigation and response to climatic factors can mean yield differences of more than 50 per cent even in the same region. Closing these differences, it has been estimated, could result in an increase in production for most major crops of between 45 per cent and 70 per cent The most significant opportunities for such intensification exist not only in eastern Europe, but also in the least food secure region of sub-Saharan Africa. <20/12/2012>