Can we feed a 2050 world?

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Last week the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) released the first of five policy issue briefs bringing a global focus to meeting the agricultural needs of a rapidly growing global population by increasing the rate of agricultural productivity; a recent GHI report suggests that the rate of agricultural productivity must increase at a minimum of 25% per year to meet future demand and double output over the next 40 years.

The policy issue brief, "Improving Agricultural Research Funding, Structure and Collaboration," describes the notable returns on agricultural research and the role of research as a primary source of the innovation and productivity gains necessary to sustainably grow more and better food, help alleviate global poverty and hunger, and address food security issues.  

"If we are to feed the nine billion people that will share this planet by 2050, we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000, and research will be critical," said Dr. Jason Clay, World Wildlife Fund Senior Vice President of Market Transformation. "Research is a first step in acquiring data to measure our real impact and identify alternatives. Half of the world's farmers are producing below average results and cannot even feed their own families. Learning how to leverage research and data is critical to stimulate innovation, identify new ideas and improve productivity."  World Wildlife Fund is one of several consultative partners that share GHI's goal of sustainably closing the global agricultural productivity gap.

"With a surging global population and new demands on food crops, the inadequate and declining support for basic food and agricultural research must be addressed quickly, as the research process takes a minimum of 10 years from laboratory to field. We must also find the means to enhance research and fund the organizations that facilitate research. By focusing on agricultural research and other key policies we can begin to address hunger and food security issues by sustainably increasing the rate of agricultural productivity without the use of more land, water or other inputs," said Dr. William G. Lesher, Global Harvest Initiative Executive Director.

An article last month in Dairy Herd Management featured Jeff Simmons, president of Elanco Animal Health, who discussed how technology in agriculture will be vital to producing the amount of food required (read his white paper here). “To make safe, affordable and abundant food a reality, we must focus on the three fundamental rights that come from access to technology,” Simmons said. Those fundamental rights, as outlined by Simmons, include:
1. Food — a basic human right. Withholding safe, proven innovations that make food production more efficient is inhumane and should be considered morally unacceptable.

2. Choice — a consumer right. All consumers should have the right to spend their food budget as they see fit. Those who need affordable food choices should find them readily available. Affluent consumers should have lifestyle options.

3. Sustainability — environmentally right. Continuing to safeguard our natural resources while endeavoring to feed 9-plus billion people by 2050 will require levels of efficient food production heretofore unachieved. Technology has helped us extend human life expectancy, virtually eliminate smallpox from the planet and send men to the moon. Likewise, safe, proven agri-food technologies can help the world’s farmers produce more with less.

Living on the edge
Chuck Rice, distinguished professor of soil science at Kansas State University and a member of the 2007 Nobel Prize-winning panel on climate change agrees that, “We must double food production by 2050, just to meet the needs of our on-going population growth. Somehow we must couple that with today’s concerns about food costs, healthful nutrition and food safety, as well. At the same time, natural-resource security will be just as important as food security. Energy and weather are likely to play a part in that. But, we’ll never have more land or water, and it’s up to us to keep those key resources available and usable.” 

Rice notes that as the world is becoming crowded, it’s also exposing more people to natural and human-caused disasters. Today, for example, about 40% of the world’s population and some 55% of U.S. residents are living on a coast – prime targets for hurricanes, flooding and the occasional tsunami.  As might be expected, many are living in or around major ports. How many people are at risk – the number of coastal dwellers this represents – is hard to visualize, Rice says. In recent decades, the count of humans living “on the edge” has erupted.

Food security
What Rice finds more frightening, however, is that natural resources aren’t keeping pace. For example, many factors have played a part in this year’s citizen revolts in North Africa and the Middle East. Still, food and the money to buy it have been sparks that helped propel the regions’ unrest into riots. “Arable cropland and drinkable water have been on the decline for decades – dangerously so,” Rice said. “World food prices reached record highs in recent months. Now, some important grains are scarce. More and more people believe they can’t take good care of their family – through no fault of their own. Food security and a nation’s overall security have direct ties. Interactions between those two factors can put a government at risk.”

Rice thinks the biggest challenge facing humankind is to keep such problems from becoming worse. He believes the U.S. land-grant university system could provide a good start, due to its track record in practical research and outreach to help citizens improve their lives. “Earth isn’t going to get any bigger. The necessities of life won’t be easier to find. The odds for global climate change are very real, and the world’s best food-producing regions are likely to be hit hard,” he said. “We need to discover new and improved ways to do the best we can with what we have.”

Read the full article featuring Chuck Rice by Kathleen Ward here.  


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