December 11, 2011

How to Feed the World in 2050

Net investments of $83 billion a year must be made in agriculture in developing countries if there is to be enough food to feed 9.1 billion people in 2050 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN

By 2050 the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion, 34 percent higher than today. Nearly all of this population increase will occur in developing countries. Urbanization will continue at an accelerated pace, and about 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban (compared to 49 percent today). Income levels will be many multiples of what they are now. In order to feed this larger, more urban and richer population, food production (net of food used for biofuels) must increase by 70 percent. Annual cereal production will need to rise to about 3 billion tonnes from 2.1 billion today and annual meat production will need to rise by over 200 million tonnes to reach 470 million tonnes.

This report argues that the required increase in food production can be achieved if the necessary investment is undertaken and policies conducive to agricultural production are put in place. But increasing production is not sufficient to achieve food security. It must be complemented by policies to enhance access by fighting poverty, especially in rural areas, as well as effective safety net programmes.

Total average annual net investment in developing country agriculture required to deliver the necessary production increases would amount to USD 83 billion. The global gap in what is required vis-à-vis current investment levels can be illustrated by comparing the required annual gross investment of US$209 billion (which includes the cost of renewing depreciating investments) with the result of a separate study that estimated that developing countries on average invested USD 142 billion (USD of 2009) annually in agriculture over the past decade. The required increase is thus about 50 percent.

Basic Technology for Increasing Yields

Can Technology Deliver on the Yield Challenge to 2050?

First, despite impressive gains in yields over the past 50 years in most of the world, large and economically exploitable yield gaps remain in many places, especially in the developing world and nowhere more so than in sub-Saharan Africa where food supply is the most precarious.

Second, in the short to medium term, there are many technologies that are in their early stage of adoption that promise a win-win combination of enhancing productivity and sustainably managing natural resources. These include conservation farming approaches based on no tillage and the GM technology revolution—both still only used on less than 10 percent of the world’s cropland—as well as the even earlier adoption phase of information and communication technologies (ICT) for more efficient and precise management of modern inputs.

Third, yield gains are not achieved by technology alone, but also require complementary changes in policies and institutions. In much of the developing world, policies are now more favorable for rapid productivity growth, while a range of innovations in risk management, market development, rural finance, organizing farmers, and provision of advisory services, show considerable promise to make markets work better and provide a conducive environment for technology adoption. Indeed, in sub-Saharan Africa these innovations are a necessary condition for wider adoption of critical technologies such as fertilizer.

Fourth, plant breeders continue to make steady gains in potential yield and water-limited potential yield, more slowly than in the past for wheat and rice, but with little slackening in the case of maize; there is no physiological reason why these gains cannot be maintained but progress is becoming more difficult with conventional breeding. Genomics and molecular techniques are now being regularly applied to speed the breeding in the leading multinational seed companies and elsewhere, and their costs are falling rapidly. As well, transgenic (GM) technology has a proven record of over a decade of safe and environmentally sound use and its potential to address critical biotic and abiotic stresses of the developing world, with positive consequences for closing the yield gap, has yet to be tapped. We believe that the next seven to ten years will see its application to major food crops in Asia and Africa and that after its initial adoption, the currently high regulatory costs will begin to fall. We note however that this will require significant additional investment, not least in the areas of phenotyping on a large scale, and that it still takes 10-15 years from the initial investment until resulting technologies begin to have major impact on food supply. Transgenics for greater water-limited potential yield may also appear by then, but trangenics for greater potential yield, arising from significant improvements in photosynthesis, may take longer than even our 2050 horizon.

To be sure these are broad generalizations and there are important differences by crop and region. This review of the big three cereals has shown that maize is the dynamic crop, with no evidence of slowing yields and with huge potential in the developing world. It is also the crop experiencing the most rapid increase in demand, largely for feed and fuel, and the crop attracting the largest R&D research budget. Wheat demand and yield growth appear to be intermediate, the latter perhaps because of disease resistance and industrial quality constraints on breeding, as well as the bigger role of water stress in its production environment. Yield gains in rice are more problematic, but demand growth is also less, although it is a particularly important food staple for the poor of Asia, where rice area is shrinking, and increasingly Africa. And although increases in food production in Asia over the past 50 years have been impressive, no country in sub-Saharan Africa has yet experienced a green revolution in food crops in a sustained manner, despite generally better overall performance of the agricultural sector in the past decade.

Yet our review does raise a number of cautions. First, we have not (yet) reviewed other food crops—sorghum and millet, roots and tubers, pulses and oilseeds. Many of these crops are not globally important, but are critical to local food security, cassava in Africa for example. Others are growing commercial crops for an urbanizing population—potatoes for fast foods, and oilseeds for feed.

Second, the future of biofuels is the new wild card in the world food economy. To no small extent the need to accelerate global cereal yield trends beyond the historic annual rate of 43 kg/ha for 1961-2007 relates to this new demand. By 2020, the industrial world could consume as much grain per capita in their vehicles as the developing world consumes per capita directly for food.

Third, many countries face huge challenges in achieving food security, even from a narrow perspective of food supply. We are less concerned about China and India, since they should continue to be largely self sufficient for food needs (although depending on imports for part of their feed needs), but much depends on investments in R&D and management of natural resources. However, there are many countries that do not have the capacity to import large amounts of grain or it would be prohibitively costly to do so, but where population growth is still very high. Most of these are in Africa, but even Pakistan with an estimated 335 m people in 2050 faces a potential food crisis. Climate change will also be a major challenge for many
of these countries, adversely affecting yields and diverting R&D resources toward adaptation rather than yield improvement - adding a new dimension to maintenance research.

Finally, past agricultural success has in a sense been achieved by mining of non-renewable resources - fossil energy, phosphate, and much underground water. Our review of the impact of looming limitations of this strategy raises major concerns. This places a premium on improved efficiency of using these resources that must be at the center of the agenda for Feeding the World in 2050. Generally it should be noted that increased yield through breeding and agronomy is lifting resource use efficiency.

Rosegrant et al. show that with a 13 percent increase in public investment over the baseline, especially in R&D, producing a 0.4 percentage point increase in annual yield growth to 1.43 percent, world grain prices would resume their downward trend characteristic of much of the past century and could almost halve the number of malnourished children by 2050. By contrast, a 0.4 percentage point lower yield growth (to 0.61 percent) would lead to a more than doubling of real cereal prices, to around $600/t (US2000 dollars) and stagnation in the number of malnourished.

These studies have two major implications for our analysis of future yield perspectives. First, a continuous linear increase in yields at a global level following the pattern established over the past five decades will not be sufficient to meet food, feed, and fuel needs—that is, future demands at today’s real prices or lower. The world will need to do better in the next forty years. Second, the outcome is quite sensitive to yield projections. An increase of 0.4 percent percentage points can reverse price trends. While this sounds like a relatively modest goal, they are exponential growth estimates, and require an increase in current absolute yield growth rate of more than one third. This cannot be taken for granted, especially since aggregate growth rates in both percentage and absolute terms are as we have seen clearly in a declining phase (except for maize) and input growth may make a much smaller contribution than in the recent past.

2011 and 2012 Global Agricultural Production Estimates

World Agriculture supply and demand estimate from the USDA (US dept of Agriculture - latest report Dec, 2011

Global wheat supplies for 2011/12 are projected 9.3 million tons higher with larger beginning stocks in Australia and Argentina and a 5.7-million-ton increase in foreign production. Beginning stocks for Australia are raised for 2011/12 with a 1.9-million-ton increase in 2010/11 production based on recently released data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Argentina beginning stocks for 2010/11 and 2011/12 are raised with revisions to 2009/10 and 2010/11 production based on the latest indications of available supplies and usage.

Global wheat production for 2011/12 is projected at a record 689.0 million tons, up 37.4 million from 2010/11, and 3.5 million higher than the previous record in 2009/10. Australia production for 2011/12 is raised 2.3 million tons in line with the latest government estimate. Another year of adequate to abundant precipitation across the country’s southern and eastern growing areas and a recovery in production in Western Australia pushes production to a record 28.3 million tons. Argentina production is raised 1.5 million tons with higher expected harvested area and yields with recent improvements in late-season growing conditions. Production for Canada is raised 1.1 million tons based on the latest estimate from Statistics.

Global corn production for 2011/12 is projected at a new record high of 867.5 million tons, despite a 3.5-million-ton decline year-to-year in the United States. Foreign corn production is expected to be up 43.4 million tons from 2010/11. China 2011/12 production is raised 7.3 million tons this month based on the recently released estimate from the National Bureau of Statistics. Slightly higher area and a 3 percent increase in yields from the previous forecast boost this year’s crop to a record 191.8 million tons. This year’s yield estimate is up 3 percent (3 bushels per acre) from the previous record in 2008/09 and up 9 percent (8 bushels per acre) from the recent low in 2009/10. Weather was generally favorable for this year’s crop; record yields were reported despite summer conditions in the northeast growing areas that were somewhat warmer and drier than in 2008/09.

World 2011/12 rice supply and use projections are lowered from a month ago. Global rice production is projected at a record 460.8 million tons, but down slightly due primarily to lower forecasts for Brazil and China, which is partially offset by an increase for Vietnam. The China rice crop is projected at a record 140.5 million tons, down 0.5 million from last month, based on China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report published on December 2. NBS reported harvested area at 29.9 million hectares, slightly above the previous year, and a record yield at 6.70 metric tons per hectare, up 2 percent from 2010/11.

Past nextbigfuture article covering feeding people in 2050 and 2100

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