Brian Gardner's Blog

Whatever dreams environmentalists may have of a world fed by a chemical-free organic agriculture, the hard reality is likely to be something very different. Laudable though the green farming paradigm may be, it is certain that a largely increased and more prosperous world population will only be fed by increased agricultural output. Such increase can only be achieved by the increased inputs of fertiliser, crop protection measures and better technique. Whether or not this increase can be achieved sustainably depends heavily on the ingenuity of scientists and farmers.
These thoughts are stimulated by the recent Economist Conference ‘Feeding the World 2013’, in Amsterdam, which was devoted to the challenge of feeding a future 9 billion plus global population. The proceedings were understandably dominated by speakers involved in the business of food production or supplying the food producers with their vital inputs. This fact unsurprisingly stirred the usual brickbats from the green lobby. They of course not only question the basis of what they regard as the ‘commercial agriculture paradigm’, but also increasingly question the well supported estimates by FAO and other agencies that the world’s food production has to increase by 70 per cent to feed an expected 9+ billion world population.
They argue that the world is physically incapable of continuing with what they tend to call the ‘Western consumption model’. This is in any case a highly contentious thesis. But what is important is to question the underlying figures which support what has become the conventional wisdom on the world ‘food crisis’ issue. What is not generally known or accepted is that the FAO’s 70 per cent figure is well on the conservative side. If the world population does increase to 9+ billion by 2050 – that is, almost a third more than the current population – and the prosperity of Asian and African countries improves to the levels predicted by the World Bank and the IMF, then the actual increased demand for basic food commodities will not be 70 per cent but something between 85 and 100 per cent.
The FAO’s calculations are based on the assumption of a continuation of the present trend of increase in global average daily consumption. They do not allow for either the possibility that several important currently less developed regions will not only aim to raise their daily food consumption to equal the so-called ‘Western diet’, but also want to eat more high quality proteins in the form of meat and dairy products. This will raise the demand for both food and feed grains to somewhere close to twice the current annual global output.
This will demand, most importantly, new crop varieties and new agricultural techniques to counteract current declining yield growth rates. What the comfortably housed, well fed and well educated western eco-warriors argue of course is that the world has to be re-educated to be satisfied with a much simpler, low protein diet so as to relieve the pressure of world agriculture on the environment. Try telling that to a starving Mumbai slum dweller or an African family struggling to survive on a drought-ridden and under-funded smallholding on the edge of the Sahel desert. Or even, a Chinese family struggling to keep up with the rising living standards of the rest of their compatriots.
Given the right attitudes by governments and provision of cash for agricultural research, infrastructure improvement and agricultural development , the world’s agricultural system is quite capable of adequately feeding a 9 billion population, without destructive pressure on the environment. The priority is adequate funding of agricultural research. Achievement of such an objective demands the right initiatives to be taken by politicians. But the adoption of such attitudes is not aided by the vociferous, basically anti-science, whingeing of too many of the green NGOs.<02/05/2013>

 

 

 

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  1. @Brian

    I want to agree with your basic point that meeting the global food challenge requires much greater investment in agricultural research and infrastructure to raise productivity particularly in developing countries, and that the a priori exclusion of particular technologies advocated by some groups will make this more difficult and costly and will also likely lead to greater environmental damage than might otherwise occur.

    It is important, however, to correct the factual point that the FAO projections of increased food demand of 70% (over the 2005-07 base period, the figure is meaningless unless the base is also referenced) is a conservative one because “The FAO’s calculations are based on the assumption of a continuation of the present trend of increase in global average daily consumption. They do not allow for either the possibility that several important currently less developed regions will not only aim to raise their daily food consumption to equal the so-called ‘Western diet’, but also want to eat more high quality proteins in the form of meat and dairy products.”

    Making projections of food demand and supply for 40 years ahead is an inherently uncertain exercise, so there is certainly scope to disagree with the FAO figures (see my recent blog post for a discussion of these figures and some of the uncertainties).

    However, the FAO projections are not simple trend projections (although even trend projections would embody the change towards more western diets that have taken place during the period used to calculate the trend). They explicitly account for the impact of changing incomes per capita and urbanisation on the composition of the demand for food, even if they assume a relatively restrained increase in meat and milk consumption in some developing countries. As I note in my blog post:

    “FAO also expect that developing countries will be relatively slow in adopting ‘western’-style livestock-based diets as their per person incomes rise. Substantial differences in meat and milk consumption between developed and developing countries are projected to remain. Exceptions are China and Brazil which are moving rapidly towards developed country intake levels of livestock products, but other populous countries such as India are on a much slower trajectory.”

    Whether the FAO projected level of food demand in 2050 (or some higher level) should be taken as a normative target or not is then a separate question. Obesity in both developed and developing countries is a growing health problem, and it is also important to focus on the avoidance of food losses (particularly post-harvest losses in developing countries). Moving to less resource-intensive diets would be desirable in itself, but its impact on undernutrition is likely to be slight compared to the potential of increasing agricultural productivity.

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