Food demand outpacing sustainable supply as population booms

Cowpeas are a crucial source of plant protein in Ghanaian diets, but their production is increasingly at risk of disease and drought. New resistant varieties are being developed in response. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
23 October 2018

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A new report says more efficient agricultural productivity – one that uses less land, water and labor – is vital to meeting the global food demand projected for 2050. Otherwise, the world’s growing population might not be able to stay sustainably fed.

Aiming to provide a snapshot of global food supply shortfalls as compared to demand, the 2018 Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report, released on the sidelines of the World Food Prize on 17 October, estimates “global agricultural activity must increase by 1.75 percent annually to meet the demands of nearly 10 billion people by 2050.” Yet, the authors note, “for the fifth straight year, global agricultural productivity growth is not accelerating fast enough.”

The report begins with an overview of climate change’s ever-continuing stress on agricultural and food production systems. As agriculture is the largest consumer of the world’s water supply, protecting water resources in the face of rising temperatures and populations will become increasingly paramount. With limited resources, producers will have to deal with growing urban populations – expected to reach 5 billion by 2030 – and the ensuing encroachment of urban areas on farms. And as for effects of the temperature itself, average hours of agricultural work could decrease 66 percent by 2030 due to heat exhaustion.

The key to addressing such issues, the report says, is efficiency. The report uses a metric called Total Factor Productivity (TFP) to draw its conclusions, measuring agricultural productivity through lenses of innovation and efficiency. In cognizance that the food supply system is inherently resource-intense – reliant on use of water, land, labor, machinery, energy, livestock and fertilizer – the TFP approach looks at how to grow more with less.

Such productivity is especially critical in low-income countries and developing countries – where 12.9 percent of the collective population is undernourished – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Low-income countries experienced a downward trend in agricultural productivity from 1.31 percent in 2016 to 1.24 percent in 2017, the report found.

“[This way] we can see over time how the food and agriculture sector is doing with respect to producing the food we need with less environmental impact,” says Margaret Zeigler, executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative, who co-authored the report with the Initiative’s deputy director Ann Steensland.

Ziegler points to the example of India, which requires millions of animals to meet consumer dairy demand. In the United States, however, fewer animals produce significantly more milk through strategic livestock feeding, management and genetics. This also results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of milk.

“Countries with low productivity growth will seek to produce more food using agricultural production strategies that do not conserve existing resources, such as converting forests and grasslands for agricultural production, or by relying on more inputs (more seeds, fertilizer or pesticides) or more labor,” says Zeigler. “This will place significant burden on the world’s land, water and human capital resources, making it difficult for future generations to meet their own food needs.”

The report makes clear that systemic optimization is key for sustainable supply growth, but low-income countries often lack the resources and expertise needed to achieve this. As such, Zeigler stresses the importance of partnerships and collaborations between farmers and local producers and the private sector, non-governmental organizations and international agencies that can aid in this arena.

The private sector should further help in developing more and better infrastructure, while policymakers should be advancing agricultural trade agreements and supportive public policies.

All of this aims to keep costs down for farmers and consumers, improve sustainable and green growth, and enhance public health. The challenge of accomplishing this agenda is a daunting one, but the costs of not doing so are also high.

“Coupled with the rise in the number of hungry people, these troubling trends require urgent action now,” says Zeigler. “We hope this report serves as a call to action.”

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