With a demographic expansion probably bringing about a world population of nine billion by 2050, pundits believe that it will be necessary to double the volume of agricultural production. But how? The issue is all the more crucial since a number of experts worry that agriculture has reached a performance peak in developed countries and that over one billion people are still suffering from hunger worldwide.
The scope of the challenge certainly requires marshaling all available means––expanding farmed areas, shrinking losses and, more importantly, boosting agricultural yields––while mobilizing all players from large farms in developed countries to those in developing nations.
A recent research paper published by the Académie d’Agriculture de France and written by rural economist Nahid Movahedi as well as the Académie’s Guy Paillotin, Permanent Secretary, and André Neveu, Member, focuses on the approaches and means to boost global agricultural production by 2050. We highly recommend reading this report since, in addition to its valid relevance in assessing the current situation and the means at our disposal, its conclusion includes the need to implement a new global agricultural policy to be advocated by the qualified international institutions and adapted at the regional and local levels.
Momagri Editorial Board
Will the planet have enough land to feed mankind in the 21st century?
Multiply agricultural production by two in order to feed nine billion men and women by 2050 is the challenge reiterated by Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Madrid this past January. The options inherent to such challenge are based on the three following developments:
Under these conditions, doubling agricultural production by 2050 (i.e. a yearly increase of one to two percent depending on crops) can be achieved, provided we muster all available human and material means, and thus make very sizeable investment. Such outlays surpass private farmers’ own resources and involve a strong commitment from governments and qualified international institutions. Such general mobilization must simultaneously lead to:
- A demographic outlook that cannot be contested, unless one supposes prompt and widespread birth control or dramatic humanitarian disasters;
- A “reasonable” rise in consumption of animal products;
- A moderate increase in biofuel production, considering that it uses approximately 15 million hectares worldwide to meet about two percent of fuel needs. Biofuel production should not exceed 70 to 100 million hectares, because over that amount the subtraction of agricultural land––and consequently the leverage on agricultural prices––would become intolerable.
1. Farmland areas are limited
- Preserving agricultural land, whose future expansion will soon become restricted,
- Reducing the risks of production losses,
- Drastically boosting crop yields.
The FAO indicates that farmland currently totals 1,550 million hectares throughout the world. Another 120 million hectares will be added––mostly in South America and in Africa––by 2030, but nothing afterwards. New crops would then barely offset abandoned land (3.5 million hectares annually) and land earmarked for urbanization (2 million hectares). Available and productive land is indeed becoming rare, especially if we want to protect the large tropical forests that are very beneficial to preserve climate balance and biodiversity.
Admittedly, we must not overlook a total of 3,460 million hectares of pastureland, but their unitary production is very low and unlikely to increase due to recurrent over-pasturage.
We must also emphasize that the availability of farmland greatly varies from one region to the next, and that thinking in terms of global averages might lead to miss the real issues. The significant heterogeneity shown in Chart #1 illustrates the issue of food self-reliance for many nations, and more starkly their getting access to food.
Making the situation worse, 20 percent of today’s farmland––i.e. 300 million hectares––is severely deteriorated and its fruitfulness is precariously declining. This is the case, in particular, of land in the African Sahel that is experiencing drought and wind erosion, or of the poorly irrigated land in Central Asia that are on the path to advanced salinity. Some areas must be abandoned all the more rapidly because climate hazards might speed up their deterioration.
Land preservation thus represents an outright requirement if we want to avoid human disasters. This is also a priority because each wasted hectare is lost forever. Such protection entails, prior to any decision, obtaining first-rate knowledge of the agronomic potential and weakness of the land.
2. Reducing the risks of production losses
These losses are far from insignificant and have three causes:
3. Boosting crop yields
- As far as crops are concerned, the issues related to plant protection in countries that cannot afford to produce, acquire or distribute phytosanitary products. In these countries, it might be cost-effective to disseminate organic farming techniques;
- Losses incurred after harvests are currently reaching 15 percent. But this is only an average: while negligible in industrialized countries, they can reach very high levels in less-advanced nations. In fact, they are contingent upon various factors, such as warehousing or transportation circumstances and the highly negative intervention of numerous players in such countries;
- In the agribusiness and distribution sectors, losses are rather typical of developed countries. In fact, food wasting at all levels is a frequent occurence there, to the extent that food “waste” management is increasingly becoming a problem4.
Be it as it may, the key to increased agricultural production rests on boosting crop yields. Yet, yields greatly vary from one region to another based on land fruitfulness and production conditions. For instance, grain yields fluctuate between one and four in Western Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa (see Chart #2). This means that productivity reserves are extremely uneven from one country to the next.
However, boosting yields must be achieved through:
Acting in these fields is all the more urgent that yield growth seems to have been leveling for the past few years, without any explanation at this time. Can it be caused by climate change even it is still mild? The implementation of modern techniques is certainly still difficult and can generate serious consequences on the environment and the stability of future results. We must thus fine-tune and promulgate new agricultural practices that implicate the experience acquired by farmers throughout the centuries. In fact, the whole purpose and methodology for spreading technical advancement must be reconsidered.
- More productive plant varieties, which must be provided to farmers by agronomic research. Yet up to now, research has been conducted on a small number of species such as wheat, corn or rice. Secondary crops at the global level, such as millet, sorghum and tubers that represent the basis of nutrition for many people, have not been topics for advanced research. In fact, we observe an incentive to research products having a significant impact on markets. This is an issue to be raised with the governance of international public research;
- Irrigation must be developed when necessary and feasible, taking into account that the cost of such investment is considerable, that water availability is very inadequately shared worldwide and that competition between its various uses is fierce. In addition, the quantities available for farming will decline in some countries due to the probable climate change. Consequently, irrigated areas will have to achieve water management savings through drip systems or water reutilization techniques for example;
- Use of fertilizers must rise in accordance with expected yields. But costs might become increasingly prohibitive for the poorer populations. In fact, one ton of oil equivalent is needed to produce one ton of nitrogen-based fertilizer;
- Crop protection, which is necessary to prevent considerable damages from predators and yield declines caused by weeds.
In 2050, feeding mankind will still and always rely on the proficient use of agricultural land. Yet, we must become aware that we live in a world where space is not without limits. It is thus vital to preserve farmland against all kinds of aggressions: urbanization that drastically reduces it every day, farming and forestry flawed techniques that devalue it, and climate change that threatens it.
We must also marshal the world’s farmers, from the heads of large capitalistic farming operations that supply international markets to the hundreds of millions of very small farmers in Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa, who provide survival means for whole populations. And yet, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to amicably combine such dissimilar elements in the same global market. We must therefore create regional markets, where players have the same approximate productivity and identical production cost. Such was the European objective with its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Other regions of the world should follow suit.
One can nevertheless predict that the scarcity of available land and the unavoidable hurdles to increase yields will generate higher agricultural prices. To forestall unmanageable drifts, we must choose between adequately feeding the entire population––including the poorest––keeping up with a rising consumption of meat––a strong user of grain and soybean––and massively producing biofuel––which now concerns only one percent of farmland worldwide but might be encouraged beyond reason due to the predicted rise in oil prices.
Once these options have been acknowledged, improvement of agronomic techniques and their staying power will constitute the key to increasing agricultural production. Governments and international organizations must put it at the top of their agenda, which translates both in significant investment in agriculture and balanced growth in the various production units. Should that not be the case, we must expect to monitor hunger riots in the over-populated cities of the third world, to remain helpless against clearing of still now protected large forests, and to condemn real estate pressure that leads to many discrepancies. We are already noting an increase in still available land purchases or leases in poor countries by dollar-rich nations that need agricultural products. The world would then embark on a new form of land colonialism tied to a rapid industrialization of agricultural production. This would go against a balanced evolution of rural communities towards more wellbeing.
We cannot let global agriculture develop in an uncontrolled manner, that is to say recognizing profits as the only rule. This would indeed leave a great part of mankind on the road to ruin. Starting today, a global agricultural policy that is well publicized at the regional and local levels must therefore be implemented.
1 Rural economist
2 Permanent Secretary of the Académie d’Agriculture de France
3 Member of the Académie d’Agriculture de France.
4 Even if we are not really speaking of “wasting”, animal production consumes a large part of plant production. However, this must be checked against the nature of plant production and the population nutritional requirements.