Editorial: The information age and agriculture’s footprint

University agronomist says estimates of how much food needed to feed world's population by 2050 are too low

harvesting a crop

The latest global supply-and-demand outlooks make it a little difficult to get too excited over worries the world will run out of food any time soon.

World grain prices are weakening under what are characterized as burdensome supplies of staple commodity crops. Most of the pundits are now predicting we’re in for a prolonged period of depressed prices. In other words, we’re getting back to normal. It seems that whenever shortfalls occur, as they did following the U.S. drought of 2012-13, farmers rise to the productivity challenge and then some.

University of Nebraska agronomist Ken Cassman was recently tasked with assessing whether the world productivity gains are on track to feed nine billion people by 2050. Reporting to the Borlaug Dialogue last month, he surprised more than a few in his audience by saying no.

And, in the view of Cassman and his colleagues, we’re not off by just a little. He suggests current estimates of how much food will be needed by 2050 are too low, that the demands existing production place on the environment are too high and agriculture’s ability to increase productivity enough is questionable under today’s parameters.

For starters, feeding the world isn’t a question of simple math — multiplying nine billion people by 2,500 or so calories per day. As people rise above poverty, their demand for more calories and a more diverse diet will increase just as it did after the lean times of the Second World War, he said.

“Every human being on this planet in 2050 has a right to a bottle of wine, and a dinner that includes beautiful diverse foods, because food is such an important part of culture, of our happiness and of being human beings,” he said. “If we start thinking 2,500 calories, how to do we feed 9.5 billion, that’s the wrong way to think about this.”

Cassman’s research shows that although global production has been rising, yield gains in many key producing areas has been slowing. “Thirty-one per cent of current global cereal supply is coming from countries which have statistically significant plateau yields or marked decrease in the linear rate of gain that was enjoyed earlier,” he said. That means a larger share of productivity gains are due to farmers farming more land.

That should come as no surprise to anyone here on the Prairies, where production efficiency is equated with expanding farm sizes, rather than increasing the productivity of existing acres. Farmers here have been busy buying out their neighbours over the past several decades and the actual area devoted to cropping hasn’t changed all that much. But farmers elsewhere in the world have been increasing their farm sizes by pushing bush and rainforest at an unprecedented pace.

“During the 1980s and 1990s nearly all of the increased food production was met on existing land, by increasing yields,” Cassman said.

“There has been an abrupt and statistically significant increase in harvested crop area beginning in 2000 at a rate of 10 million hectares per year. This is the fastest rate of crop area expansion in human history,” Cassman said, noting more than 80 per cent of that increased land is devoted to the production of just four crops — maize, rice, wheat and soya.

“Some have called this an agricultural time bomb, because it is not sustainable,” he said.

This is not something that can be fixed by market forces. Farmers produce more when prices are high, because who wouldn’t want to cash in? Farmers produce more when prices are low because how else would they survive?

“The only way to keep food prices in check over the long term, is to produce adequate food and to do that, we need accelerating yield gains and appropriate policies holding agriculture on existing area,” he said.

Meanwhile, despite all efforts to contain them, global greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to rise, which will add to the challenge of stagnating yield gains.

Lastly, the new stores of natural gas harvested through fracking have pushed the worry about “Peak energy” back by at least a generation. “It’s quite likely food prices will rise faster than the price of energy inputs going into the next generation, the exact opposite of what we’ve had,” he said.

Cassman’s solution to the challenge of increasing production but not the footprint? He agrees that technology is part of it, but the yield increases in developed countries prove that the technology is already available. He sees the bigger challenge as delivering the technology to those who don’t have it, and ensuring that agronomic and climatic information remain in the public domain.

“I am going to argue that we need big, open, publicly available data,” he said.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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