By 2050, the world population will exceed 9 billion people. While nearly one billion people suffer from hunger in the world today, some are questioning the ability of world agriculture to cope with this rapid population growth. As Bill Gates reminds us in the annual letter of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation1, though agriculture has already faced similar challenges in the past, there must now be a new context established so as to put agriculture at the heart of national and international initiatives and then give priority to innovation. Because without a significant improvement in productivity and yields, agricultural production will not increase by 70% by 2050, a target considered as fundamental to global food security by the UN. In addition to these two basic criteria, momagri believe it appropriate to add a third: the proper regulation of international agricultural markets. Production, innovation and regulation are indeed 3 essential issues in the fight against global food insecurity.
momagri Editorial board
Right now, just over 1 billion people—about 15 percent of the people in the world—live in extreme poverty. On most days, they worry about whether their family will have enough food to eat. There is irony in this, since most of them live and work on farms. The problem is that their farms, which tend to be just a couple acres in size, don’t produce enough food for a family to live on.
Fifteen percent of the world in extreme poverty actually represents a big improvement. Fifty years ago, about 40 percent of the global population was poor. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, in what is called the “Green Revolution,” Norman Borlaug and other researchers created new seed varieties for rice, wheat, and maize (corn) that helped many farmers vastly improve their yields. In some places, like East Asia, food intake went up by as much as 50 percent. Globally, the price of wheat dropped by two-thirds. These changes saved countless lives and helped nations develop.
We have the ability to accelerate this historic progress. We can be more innovative about delivering solutions that already exist to the farmers who need them. Knowledge about managing soil and tools like drip irrigation can help poor farmers grow more food today. We can also discover new approaches and create new tools to fundamentally transform farmers’ lives. But we won’t advance if we don’t continue to fund agricultural innovation, and I am very worried about where those funds will come from in the current economic and political climate.
The world faces a clear choice. If we invest relatively modest amounts, many more poor farmers will be able to feed their families. If we don’t, one in seven people will continue living needlessly on the edge of starvation. My annual letter this year is an argument for making the choice to keep on helping extremely poor people build self-sufficiency. […]
Farming is a great example of something critical to the poor that gets very little attention in rich countries. Back in the 19th century, the majority of people in the United States worked in agriculture. Now less than 2 percent of the workforce is involved in farming, and less than 15 percent of U.S. consumer spending goes to food. Farming issues rarely make the news. The exceptions are when food is contaminated, when government subsidies are being debated, or when there is a famine like the current one in the Horn of Africa.
Despite the rich world’s distance from farming, food-related issues are important for all of us. In the 1960s and 1970s, when I was in high school, people worried that we simply couldn’t grow enough food to feed everyone in the world. A popular book that came out in 1968, The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, began with the statement: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…” Fortunately, due in large part to the Green Revolution, this dire prediction was wrong.
But the world’s success in warding off famine led to complacency. Over time, governments in both developed and developing countries focused less on agriculture. Agricultural aid fell from 17 percent of all aid from rich countries in 1987 to just 4 percent in 2006. In the past 10 years, the demand for food has gone up because of population growth and economic development—as people get richer, they tend to eat more meat, which indirectly raises demand for grain. Supply growth has not kept up, leading to higher prices. Meanwhile, the threat of climate change is becoming clearer. Preliminary studies show that the rise in global temperature alone could reduce the productivity of the main crops by over 25 percent. Climate change will also increase the number of droughts and floods that can wipe out an entire season of crops. More and more people are raising familiar alarms about whether the world will be able to support itself in the future, as the population heads toward a projected 9.3 billion by 2050.
I believe these new dire predictions can be wrong, too. We can help poor farmers sustainably increase their productivity so they can feed themselves and their families. By doing so, they will contribute to global food security. But that will happen only if we prioritize agricultural innovation.