Science - May 26, 2011

Feeding the world in seven steps

In 40 years, the world populations will have grown from 7 to 9 billion and people in China and India will be eating a western diet with much more meat. Demand for food will almost double. Can we meet it?

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'We've been lulled into complacency in the last couple of decades, by the low prices of agricultural products', says Martin van Ittersum, personal professor of Plant Production Systems. As a result, investments in agricultural developments have plummeted. And we are reaping the harvest of that, according to Van Ittersum: agricultural production has slowed. But he also points to a turning point: 'Luckily, agriculture is prominent again on the international agenda.'

Limits to growth
Technically, it seems possible to double agricultural production in 40 years, Van Ittersum claimed two weeks ago in his inaugural lecture as personal professor. To achieve this, agricultural production would have to grow by 2 percent per year, just as it did between 1960 and 2000. Across large areas of Africa, Latin America and eastern Europe, agricultural production could be raised considerably, because current production is at 20 to 30 percent of the maximum capacity. However, there are limits to growth: the amount of water available is limited, and stocks of fossil fuels and phosphate are finite. Nor can the amount of land given over to agriculture be endlessly increased, at nature's expense.

Seven steps
So Resource put this question to scientists from within and beyond Wageningen UR: what has to happen to make sure we have enough food in 40 years' time? The outcome is a varied array of suggestions, which can be summarized under seven headings. Few of the recommendations here are new. And several of the speakers remarked that we know what the issues are. What we need now is political action.
Strikingly, gene technology and other cutting edge techniques which generally come in for a lot of attention in public debate, play very little role in the suggestions made here. To increase production, it is more important to improve soil fertility and water use than to create improved varieties, says Van Ittersum. 'In the past, improved varieties led to bigger yields, but the ceiling for the potential production of the major crops has more or less been reached.' It is also not clear how much a new drought-tolerant crop, for example, helps to increase production, or when we will get the benefits, he says. 'A lot of attention is paid to this in Wageningen, but with genetic research alone, you won't solve the global food supply problem.'
1) Use resources more efficiently
Agriculture needs to make more efficient use of resources such as water, plant protection, nitrogen and phosphate. Combatting waste would increase production significantly, with the level of inputs staying the same. For example: if the artificial fertilizer used in China was distributed better over the provinces, 52 million more tons of grain could be produced.
To increase production in Africa, it is crucial to apply more artificial fertilizer. The limited fertility of the soils is a bigger limitation on agricultural yields in Africa than water shortages, says Van Ittersum. 'We have calculated that, globally, 33 percent more phosphate would enable production to go up by more than 50 percent. The supply of phosphate is finite; the latest estimates assume that there are stocks for between 40 and 300 years, but we should also be discussing how much we need in order to feed the world.'
2) Limit the damage
Thirty percent of agricultural goods never reach the consumer, thanks to harvesting losses, poor storage and processing, or because so much food ends up in the waste bin. This figure must be slashed if we are to achieve the target.

3) Give farmers more influence
Globally, the farming profession is badly organized, says Ruerd Ruben, professor of Development Studies at the Radboud University of Nijmegen. To raise production, he thinks it is important for farmers to organize themselves in chains and networks. And to know how to market their productions. 'In regions with a reasonably well-functioning market and democratic governance, the yield gap - the difference between the potential and the actual yields - is smaller than it is in developing countries.'
Kees Blokland, director of Agriterra, seconds this. 'In recent years the membership of agricultural organizations in Africa has grown by 25 percent.' Through such organizations, farmers can arrange for better access to markets. But you also need investments in distribution channels for artificial fertilizer, so that it is more easily available, says Blokland. 'As well as in infrastructure, roads and storage facilities.'
4) Get markets running better
However big the demand for food gets, if food prices are not high enough, farmers will opt for more extensive farming instead of intensifying. So much depends on the ratio between the prices of inputs (artificial fertilizer, seeds, water, pesticides) and the prices of outputs (food prices), says Van Ittersum.
'Worldwide, most farmers are small-scale and cannot supply the market with food on the scale we are talking about here', says Ruben. But there is a group of medium-scale farmers who can supply food to international food chains. This gives them better and steadier prices. And these better prices enable them to invest in fertilizer and other inputs which increase the yields. But then the higher prices should reach the farmer. The profits can easily stay with the big players, says Blokland. So multinational firms need a change of mindset too, says Sander Janssen. 'At the moment there is a rat race going on in which every country and company tries to secure its own resources. Companies should seek to raise and improve their production together with farmers and other chain partners.'

5) Protect markets for developing countries

'The EU agricultural policy has been a great success when it comes to raising production', says Roel Jongeneel, researcher at the LEI and the Agricultural Economics and Rural Policy chair group. 'That is due to the good, stable prices that farmers could rely on. That made it worth their while to invest. Developing countries could benefit now from a similar policy, in which they are allowed to protect their own markets with import duties. The prices on the world market fluctuate dramatically, and that could be addressed with variable import taxes. Stable prices are an important condition for increasing production.' This recommendation goes against the trend towards liberalizing the world market. 'And yet I don't think we can avoid it.' 

6) Grow food not fuel
'Poor people have little purchasing power, but they do need to eat', says Jongeneel. He thinks it is dangerous to leave the bio-economy to the market. 'Western demand for biofuels will then be prioritized over the demand for food in developing countries.' The EU and the US should bear this in mind in their policy of stimulating biofuels, says Jongeneel.
Van Ittersum sees biofuels as a danger to food production too. 'In ten years' time, 10 to 15 percent of the grain and 33 percent of the sugar cane will be used for fuels, estimates by the OECD and the FAO have shown. That will work against sustainable food production.' Blokland adds a footnote to this. 'Biofuels increase the scope farmers have for marketing their goods, and can therefore stimulate them to grow more food  too.'

7) Stimulate best practices
Governments and markets can stimulate production, but it is still the farmers who have to do it, says Kees Blokland. So attention should be paid to the management of farms. 'We research rice production in four regions of south-east Asia', says Van Ittersum. 'The best 10 percent of the farmers got 12 to 28 percent bigger yields than the average farmer, usually without any extra inputs of labour, pesticides or artificial fertilizer. These farmers have often had the benefit of more education. Farmers can learn from each other on this.' So the crucial thing is for policy and market stimuli to address farming practices.

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