February 4, 2009

Stocking the World’s Cupboard

The global food crisis reminded us that although we’re growing more food, it’s not enough. Are we prepared for 2030? 

By Patrick Webb

For the billions of people around the world who earn less than $2 a day and spend more than half of it on food, 2008 was an especially rough year. In a single day in early March, the price of wheat on the global market leapt a staggering 25 percent. In April, the price of rice soared 50 percent in just two weeks. This was on top of global food prices that had already doubled or tripled over the past couple of years. In dozens of countries from Bangladesh to Haiti, people rioted over the soaring costs of basic foods as many were threatened by the specter of hunger.

A study in contrasts: the grains represent pounds of cereals produced per person in assorted countries worldwide in 2004. Photo: Vito Aluia

Several factors conspired to push up prices, including rising fuel and fertilizer costs, back-to-back droughts for food exporters like Australia and farms that devoted their acreage to growing currently lucrative biofuel crops rather than food.

But ironically, a key reason for the price hikes was not a generalized global shortage of food; it was the relative success of historically famine-prone countries in growing more food and reducing poverty.

Places like India, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Brazil and Nigeria all saw their agricultural sectors improve between 1970 and 2000, thanks to a string of technological advances and agricultural reforms collectively known as the Green Revolution. Improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides; better irrigation technologies; access to credit; investment in farmer education and local markets; and an opening up to the global economy all played a role in their agricultural success.

This contributed to an economic prosperity that lifted many millions of people out of poverty. A new middle class began to buy more meat, fats, sugar and higher-quality cereal grains, much of which needed to be imported. And when demand goes up, so do prices.

This should not take away from the success of the Green Revolution, which was nothing short of a remarkable moment in human history. The share of undernourished people in the world fell by about half between the early 1970s and the mid- to late-1990s, not coincidentally because more cereals were produced each year in the last quarter of the 20th century than at any other recorded time in history.

But the current crisis serves as a warning and a reminder that our war with hunger is not over. To avert greater food pressures down the road, we will have to learn some lessons from the previous 50 years of agriculture.

Keeping Up with the Need

As prosperity and population growth converge to increase our demand for food, we will need to grow a lot more of it—an additional billion tons of cereals by 2030, according to some United Nations estimates. Developing countries in particular will need to step up their output. By 2030, developing countries are expected to produce only 86 percent of their own cereal consumption, with net imports rising from 103 million tons in 2000 to some 265 million tons.

Given the damage already done by global price shocks, and the potential impact of higher fuel and transportation costs, a dependence on imported food could carry a high price tag. To keep their imports to manageable levels, developing countries will have to invest much more in their own agriculture. Given constraints to expansion and concerns for protection of fragile natural resources, almost 70 percent of the increase in crop production in developing countries will need to come from higher yields, as opposed to farming more land.

Unfortunately, it is unclear if the world has yet made the appropriate investments to meet future demands. For years, too many international donors and developing country governments have largely ignored agriculture.

The share of overseas development assistance that went to agriculture fell from around 15 percent in 1980 to less than 4 percent in 2005. The allocation to Asia fell from more than $4 billion in 1980 to $1.5 billion in 2004, roughly the same level obtained by Africa, which received more than $3 billion in the late 1980s. This lack of external funding was influenced by the long-term downward trend in prices and by signals from some donors (though not all) that African governments should not waste too much time trying to generate national income growth from agriculture.

In 2007, the World Bank wrote that the importance of agriculture to most growing economies “will shrink to boutique niches,” such that just a few resource-rich regions and countries will, in the future, supply more than 50 percent of the world’s grain.

Needless to say, most donors still do not believe that Africa will be one of those regions. As a result, the capacity of Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture, for example, to provide help to small farmers has seriously eroded. Zambia has devoted roughly 6 percent of its annual budget to the agricultural sector in recent years, but of this, less than 4 percent was allocated to agricultural researchers and extension agents, while 75 percent went to salaries for Ministry of Agriculture administrators.

True, it has proven to be a major challenge to introduce into Africa the package of products and practices that worked well elsewhere. The continent generally has a low population density, a lack of irrigation, poorly connected markets, under-funded local agricultural research and farmer education systems, and a tradition of growing crops other than cereals (such as cassava and beans) that have not lent themselves to major yield gains.

As a result, while East Asia, South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean all saw their crop yields grow in recent years, yields in the North Africa/Near East region remained largely unchanged, and sub-Saharan Africa trailed far behind. Per-capita production of all staple foods (grains combined with soy and vegetables) was still lower in Africa in the late 1980s than it had been in the 1960s. In the early 2000s, less than 4 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s arable land was irrigated, compared with an average of 26 percent for all developing countries and more than 40 percent for South Asia. At the same time, Africa is the only continent that has seen child malnutrition rise in the past decade. This does not mean that gains cannot be made in Africa. Rather, we may need different approaches to achieve the productivity enhancements that were seen in the rest of the world.

Quantity vs. Quality

Even if the world increases its yields of the most commonly consumed grains like wheat and rice, a focus on growth in cereal yields has implications for the net nutritional quality of diets.

At the dawn of the Green Revolution in 1966, the scientist Roger Revelle pointed out that “cereal production tends to be emphasized at the expense of other crops in the underdeveloped countries, because it is a relatively efficient way of producing food energy for human consumption.” He warned that large-scale increases in cereal yields were coming “at the expense of animal and vegetable protein and ‘protective’ foods, such as fruits and vegetables.”

Some say that the new focus on wheat in countries like Pakistan and India has led to a long-term decline in the cultivation of higher-protein crops like peas, beans and lentils. That trend has been blamed for contributing to the high price of legumes in the 2000s and a decline in their consumption.

Others argue that because the agricultural sector is boosting the economy, people are earning more, which should enable villagers to buy better-quality foods. But protein consumption has been declining in rural India, and many people seem to be eating fewer calories, dropping from a daily intake of just under 2,300 calories per person in the early 1970s to under 2,100 in 2004–05.

Productivity has also taken a toll on natural resources. Many problems have been pointed to over the years, including loss of biodiversity due to heavy pesticide and herbicide use; water pollution from fertilizer residue in irrigation drainage; exposure to pests or diseases due to increased mono-cropping; and more recently, output decline as soils taxed by intensive cropping over several decades are becoming depleted of nutrients and organic matter. For example, some argue that intensive irrigation of rice in India and Pakistan led to zinc and iron deficiency in the soil, which could have played a part in a recent slowdown in yields.

All these lessons emphasize the need for more investment in the agriculture sector, but in many places in ways different from the past. We need to continue agronomic research that raises productivity, but also focus on plants that can fix nitrogen in the soil (particularly legumes, but perhaps also cereals) to bypass some of the rising costs and potentially deleterious effects of excessive fertilizer applications.

We have to invest in nutrient-density traits and drought resistance, not only yield maximization. We should also give renewed attention to minimizing losses (both before and after harvesting), such that the burden of feeding more people does not rest solely on the plants themselves. We need to invest in education, clean water supplies and access to health care that together with food can support not just higher consumption but better nutrition and health.

The caveats that apply to the agronomic revolution of the 1960s take away none of its achievements. Our challenge today is to recreate those achievements in sustainable ways, with fewer environmental—and socially painful—side effects.

This story first appeared in the Fall 2008 Tufts Nutrition magazine. Patrick Webb is a professor and dean for academic affairs at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. He is the former chief of nutrition for the United Nations World Food Program.

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