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Changes Needed To Keep Feeding The World

January 13, 2011

Two French agricultural research organizations have said the world will be able to feed some nine billion people in 2050 as long as massive changes in farming practices, eating habits and consumption are changed now.

In a joint report published Jan. 12, the two groups laid out findings gathered from 2006 to 2008 that could overturn many current assumptions about the state of global farming.

In less than 40 years, the world will have to make farming more productive but less dependent on harmful chemicals, curb food losses and waste, protect the environment and reduce agriculture’s exposure to disastrous price changes, they said.

The report, titled Agrimonde — Agriworld in French — is co-authored by specialists at France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and the International Cooperative Center for Agronomic Research and Development (CIRAD), both based out of Paris.

The report, taken from an ongoing study by the two agencies, contains some surprising findings on Africa and other regions.

Agricultural productivity in Africa doubled between 1961 and 2003. That finding overturns most assumptions “and is one of the most surprising results of our work,” said Patrick Caron, CIRAD’s director-general for research and strategy.

African productivity remains the lowest in the world, however, averaging 10,000 kilocalories per hectare compared with 25,000 kcal per hectare in Asia. Productivity elsewhere had doubled or tripled during that same time period also.

Asia scored higher in productivity than in other studies, because the organizations looked at aggregate rather than independent annual yields of wheat, rice and other crops, said Bruno Dorin, a CIRAD economist, and one of the report’s authors.

“In Asia, the wheat yield may be lower, but if you take account of rice and other crops grown in the same year, the total yield is higher,” Dorin told the AFP news agency.

Another finding of the report is that major reserves of potential farmland exist all around the world, especially in Africa and Latin America, he said. “The 1.5 billion hectares of land now cultivated could be increased to 4 billion, but this would of course be at the expense of pastures and forests, which are a reservoir of biodiversity and carbon,” he added.

The conclusion that the world will be able to feed the some 9 billion people in 2050 came from consideration of two scenarios. The first one stresses economic growth but gives low priority to the environment. The second emphasizes feeding the world while preserving ecosystems.

The second scenario, based on a food intake of 3,000 kcal per person per day in all regions of the world, including 500 kcal per day of animal origin, requires an increase of 30 percent in farm output, and would mean a substantial cut in food consumption in some countries and a big increase in others. The first scenario would require an 80 percent increase in farm output.

The 3,000 kcal per day figure is based on current world average for individual food intake. Industrialized countries within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) currently average 4,000 kcal per person per day, while other countries average less than 2,500 kcal per day.

Last week, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that food prices had reached record levels and World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned that rising prices for food staples “are re-emerging as a threat to global growth and social stability.”

The Agrimonde study said that North Africa and the Middle East, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, all with fast-growing populations today, will be heavily dependent on imported food by 2050.

The current report does not include such details as land use, biofuel and climate change, as these issues will be addressed in later studies by the two French organizations. Neither does the report make any policy recommendations. “That is not our job,” officials said. The aim of the study is now to identify key agricultural questions to be taken up by the international research community.

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