May 2, 2013
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>