Mammoth task of feeding world’s growing billions

Asit K. Biswas and Said Irandoust

BANGKOK POST | October 15, 2011

A major issue confronting today’s world is the provision of enough food for nearly 7 billion people at present. More critical is the need to ensure that the 9 billion global population projected by 2050 will also have access to adequate food.

On the occasion of World Food Day tomorrow, we need to focus on whether it will be possible to provide enough food for the expected 9 billion people by 2050. It is possible, provided we look at the problem and its solutions with a new mindset and do some out-of-the-box thinking. Equally, it will require that the society and the governments take hard decisions.

Rapidly increasing demand in quantity and quality of food, utilisation of food grains for bio-fuels, rapid degeneration and shrinking of resources, and rapid urbanisation are threatening the well-being of citizens in Asia and beyond. The recent food crisis should trigger changes towards a more responsive policy environment in Asia, where majority of the farmers are resource poor.

Today, 85% of farmers are smallholders growing crops on less than two hectares of land. The World Bank has estimated that rise in food prices alone pushed 44 million extra people into hunger during the second half of 2010. If food prices escalate, there is no question world hunger will be exacerbated. If we consider increasing population trends, India will become the most populous country in the world by 2035.

Rice is critical for food security, and at present the average yield of paddy in the world is 4.2 tonnes per hectare. In China, the yield touches 6.5 tonnes, compared to India where it is 3.2 tonnes and 2.8 tonnes in Thailand. Iran, Indonesia and Burma all cross the 4-tonne mark. Even though China cultivates rice on 29.88 million hectares of land compared to India’s 41.85 million hectares, its total production is significantly higher than that of India.

There are many reasons for this yield differential within Asian countries and apart from agro-climatic conditions, it includes production processes and management practices. Fertiliser is a key input and Chinese farmers use nearly double the quantity compared to their Indian counterparts. Water is another crucial input for the rice production, and irrigated rice is grown on only 45% of the total rice area sown. Increasingly significant is the shift in rainfall months and changing rainfall, coupled with climate change-mediated effects which can alter the time-tested rhythm with regard to rains and rice production in monsoonal Asia. This calls for more research, and sustained policy measures that strengthen the rain-fed, upland and other marginal rice production systems to support the food security goals.

Better water management has the potential to increase productivity. In India, the rice yield from irrigated paddies is nearly twice that of rain-fed lowland paddies and about four times that of rain-fed upland production.

Food security also requires a focus on innovation and sharing of experiences. Innovations are required to create location specific technologies which are in tune with principles of sustainable intensification. This needs sharing of knowledge, technology and management practices among the Asian countries so that low productivity areas can catapult into a higher productivity. This would embrace a large number of resource-poor farmers left behind by the Green Revolution. Institutions and organisations will have to play a critical role in this regard.

One example is a five-year project being run by the Asian Institute of Technology for development of adaptive measures to protect against climate change, and address the food security and livelihood issues of smallholding farmers in the Lower Mekong River Basin.

Another important issue is food delivery. How much of the food produced finally reaches the consumers is an issue that has been mostly neglected. In a country like India, more than half the fruits and vegetables fail to reach the consumers. Nearly 40% of the cereals produced are also not available for consumption. Increasing emphasis is required on reducing wastage, which necessitates significant improvements in supply chain management, development of proper infrastructure, and increased food processing. India processes only 3-4% of all fruits and vegetables produced, while significant progress has been made in developing countries like Brazil and Malaysia.

The third factor is the need for new varieties of improved crops through advances in plant breeding, apart from the dire need to create flood-resistant varieties of rice. Millions of tonnes of rice are lost each year in Asia due to floods. New varieties that would be flood tolerant are now under field trials, and they should be available within a decade. Similarly, much progress has been made in recent years to develop pest-resistant crops, drought-resistant crops, and crops that can grow in saline and poor quality water. All these breakthroughs will enhance food production.

Because of these and other factors and developments, one can be cautiously optimistic about the world’s food future, provided all countries formulate and implement far sighted policies. Herein lies a major dilemma for the world. Would the countries be able to formulate good policies so that the 9 billion people have access to adequate and nutritious food by 2050?

On this issue, the global record has not been good. Let us consider only one issue, namely that of biofuels. In recent years there has been a strong push to find new forms of clean energy so as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also to contribute to energy security. At first glance, biofuels appear to tick all the right boxes.

Thus, many countries are providing heavy subsidies for biofuel production, without seriously assessing both its beneficial and negative impact. For example, by 2020, Brazil, the EU, Japan and Indonesia hope to raise biofuel production by 10%. China hopes to increase it by 5%, while the United States has a target of 30% by 2030. Since energy prices are significantly higher than food prices, heavy subsidies for biofuel have led to many unwarranted results. Accordingly, in the US, ethanol accounted for only 8% of transport fuel, but consumed nearly 40% of its maize crop. A recent report by 10 international institutions, including the World Bank, FAO and OECD estimated that between 2000 and 2009, global ethanol production increased four-fold and biodiesel 10-fold. Biofuels now account for 20% of the global sugarcane production, 9% of oilseeds and coarse grains and 4% of sugar beet. If current trends continue, the annual price of coarse grains could increase by 13%, oilseeds by 7% and vegetable oils by 35%, between 2013 and 2017.

If the current national biofuel targets are to be met, nearly 10% of the global cereal production would be consumed. Alternately, if food crop availability is to be maintained, huge amounts of extra land would have to be cultivated with a concomitant increase in water requirements. Since our earth does not have this type of spare land and water, the appropriateness of biofuel policies needs to be revisited.

The world can provide for adequate food for 9 billion of people by 2050, but it will not be an easy task on account of vested interests, focus on short-term gains, and implementation of inappropriate policies. The policy congruence between food, energy, land use, water and environment is missing in all countries. Yet, each one of them affects the others and is, in turn, affected by the others. Unless governments can coordinate policies between the various sectors, it would be a very difficult task to ensure food sufficiency for all by the year 2050.

We are likely to have the necessary solutions and knowledge, but whether we can implement them in time so that world hunger can be eliminated is another issue. To quote William Shakespeare, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves…”

Asit K. Biswas is founder and chief executive of the Third World Centre for Water Management, and member of the Advisory Board of the Asian Institute of Technology. Said Irandoust is AIT President.

Article published in Bangkok Post, October 15, 2011