Summer 2015

Enough Food for All

The answer to how to feed the growing global population has to include small-scale agriculture, not just factory farms

By Gail Bambrick

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The expansion of biofuel production is sapping a very significant share of food resources and food-producing land. Photo: T. Samson/CIMMYT

We share planet Earth with nearly 7.3 billion people. By 2050, there will be 9.6 billion of us, according to the United Nations. That’s a gain of one person every 15 seconds—or about 74 million more people each year—and each another mouth to feed.

Some claim we need to increase world food production by 70 percent to avoid future shortages, especially in developing countries, where the greatest population increases are expected over the next 35 years.

To deal with the problem most effectively, we need to start implementing new agricultural strategies now, says Timothy A. Wise, G05, director of the Research and Policy Program at Tufts’ Global Development and Environment Institute.

Tufts Nutrition: Do we need to increase food production by 70 percent to meet demand from a growing population?

Timothy A. Wise: Not according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. I reviewed these predictions, and their estimates show that we need to increase agricultural production—not food production—by 60 percent by 2050 and that we are generally on track to meet that need. Remember that agriculture also produces things like cotton and rubber, and in recent years, biofuels.

Can we avert a food-shortage crisis in the developing world in 2050?

If we want to make more food available, there are two very clear areas where we can focus public policy—reducing biofuel production, which would make more land and food available for human consumption, and reducing food waste. The expansion of biofuel production is sapping a very significant share of food resources and food-producing land. Up to 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop goes to ethanol production, taking corn directly away from human and animal consumption. We could change that. One possible alternative is cellulosic ethanol made from such nonfood products as corn stalks, wood chips and switchgrass.

And then there is food waste. About a third of the food that is grown is never eaten by anybody—often because it never gets to market in developing countries due to a lack of proper storage facilities or refrigeration. In developed countries, food is wasted at the household level—people throw out what they don’t consume—and at the retail level, with perfectly good fruit and vegetables rejected for purely cosmetic reasons.

Why isn’t large-scale agriculture the answer?

Our industrialized agricultural systems seem efficient because the commodities they produce are relatively cheap. But they are cheap because they fail to account for all their costs—from high emissions of greenhouse gases to water pollution from fertilizer runoff.

Most important, they do not feed the hungry. The majority of the world’s hungry are in rural areas. They aren’t fed by more commodity crops like Iowa corn. They are fed by increasing their own productivity and access to land, water and technical support. This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa, because that is where the fastest population growth is expected; it’s where the agricultural productivity has grown the least over the years because of a lack of investment, droughts, economic downturns and military conflicts, so this is the area of greatest concern for the future.

What are the downsides of foreign investment in agriculture in the developing world?

Governments are bending over backward to attract foreign investment, but I’ve found problems. Take Zambia. It has uncultivated land available and a lot of small-scale farmers who don’t have enough land. But the Zambian government makes the best lands available to foreigners to grow whatever they want, and what they often want to grow is for export and not for the local communities. Globally, only 11 percent of those large-scale land acquisitions end up producing food.

Is there a nation where small-scale farming is succeeding?

In Malawi there’s some very interesting work going on in what’s called “agro-ecological” farming. It’s basically working with farmers to change their production practices so they are rebuilding the quality of their soil by planting mixed crops, using animal manure and other age-old practices. That also allows them to grow a wider variety of foods, so their diets diversify, which improves their health. By cultivating different kinds of crops, small farmers can improve the soil over four to five years without as great a need for fertilizers or hybrid seeds, things that they can afford only with loans or government subsidies.

This is a much more sustainable system, and over years, these agro-ecological methods have shown dramatic productivity improvements and an increase in the variety of food crops and diets. That’s because in Malawi, the government’s priority is food production. This is just one of many examples around the world that are showing tremendous success.

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