Ban Ki-Moon says 50% increase in food production necessary


On the first day of the UN Food Summit, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told world leaders that food production must increase 50 percent to meet growing demand by 2030. Pope Benedict XVI called the hunger and maltnutrition facing the world “unacceptable” in a message read to the delegates. There are no doubts as to whether the food crisis needs to be addressed, but  a question worth asking is if the rise in food production can be achieved.  Are the methods for increasing production feasible, and what are some other ways to prevent a massive shortfall?

Yields among poor peasant farmers are estimated at about 1 ton per hectare for grain-rice, maize, wheat, sorghum and millet. Common practice is also to only harvest once a year as opposed to multi-cropping in order to produce a crop during the dry season. Combining this technique with proper irrigation could possibly increase production for these poor peasant farmers by 100-200%1. In addition, it is necessary for these farmers to have access to seed varieties, chemical fertilizers, organic compounds, and other small-scale irrigation methods. In addition, lands that are not currently being cultivated could be used to produce more food. In Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan, there are 55 million acres of uncultivated land, enough to produce 20% of the world’s annual wheat output2.

Many problems arise from adopting these strategies to curb the potential shortfall in food production. First, arable land is decreasing annually due to climate change and urbanization. Soil erosion and land degradation account for a loss of 70-140 000km2/year of farming land, and urbanisation is responsible for the loss of 20-40 000km2/year3.  Sustainable farming practices and incentives towards denser development are necessary to offset this trend.

In addition, further growth in biofuels will have a significant impact on world food supply. Estimates of the impact of biofuels on world fuel prices range from 2% to 43%. About a third of the US corn yield was used to produce ethanol this past year, and this proportion is expected to rise as more ethanol is required to replace gasoline consumption. If this trend were to continue, it would be impossible to maintain current levels of production, let alone increase them by 50%.

Water scarcity is also a problem for increasing irrigation techniques. Irrigation in hot and dry countries accounts for 70% of water use in the entire world4. The stream flows of 60% of the worlds largest rivers are interrupted by dams, preventing many poor farmers from having access to proper irrigation4. This problem may not have a solution and would be a serious limiting factor on any expansion in food production. However, some methods to work around water scarcity, such as drip irrigation can be put into effect in order to more efficiently use water.

The impact that fertilizers have on yields is undeniable (see chart below for impact on corn). Still, fertilizer prices have been soaring in recent months. According to Tulsa World, “Urea, a key form of solid nitrogen fertilizer, doubled in price from 2000 to 2007 and then went another 40 percent higher over the past year, according to reports. Potash, another key ingredient in some fertilizers, now costs nearly $600 per ton, while phosphate is nearing $1,000 a ton5.” The supply crunch is not just being seen in fuel and food, but fertilizer, This is expected to be the first year in thirty years that demand exceeds supply. Because of this, it can’t be assumed that fertilizer use can be spread across the devleoping world to increase production, nor can we assume that domestic yields will continue to rise.

Ultimately, the core problem to the food crisis is the ever growing population of the world, particularly the developing world. By 2050, it is estimated that the population of sub-Saharan Africa will surge from 900 million to 2 billion6. Feeding all of these additional mouths will be a tough task for the world to meet, putting pressure on food markets, and heightening geopolitical tensions. Population growth should the be the problem addressed first since it contributes to all shortages whether they be food, energy or medicine. Not doing so will result in a population bubble, and ultimately a large, painful, catastrophic crash that would make the humanitarian crises of today look small in scale. Steps to curtail population growth such as promoting women’s rights, educating the poor and supplying the developing world with contraceptives are paramount if we are to confront all global challenges in coming years.

In addition, greater land-use efficiency should be promoted. Not only should we seek higher density development to increase arable land, but we should take measures so that our food is used to feed people in the most efficient matter. It is necessary to switch to biofuels that don’t use primary sources of food, such as algae and switchgrass. Engineering breakthroughs are necessary, but the switch is necessary for maintaing global food supply if we are going to continue to pursue biofuels. In addition, reduced meat consumption should be encouraged, whether or not it is popular with the beef lobby. A large majority of our grain production goes towards animal agriculture, and a much larger amount of people could be fed if we reduced the excesses of meat consumption.

Altogether, it is going to take a massive effort to prevent a global food crisis in the coming years. The ideas proposed by Ban Ki-moon are a good start, but primarily only solutions for the short to medium-term. We will see what comes out of the summit in the next 2 days.



4 Responses

  1. One glimmer of hope is that the as the developing world industrializes, population growth will level off mirroring the pattern of developed nations. As the incentive structure changes (rising opportunity cost to children), developing nations may avoid the Malthusian trap of 0 per capita growth. Of course, it remains to be seen if our fuel supplies will support that kind of industrialization.

  2. Hmm… this seems to be one of the better researched commentaries I’ve come across. One of the things you missed was that we have actually produced enough food to feed everyone in the world for the last several years running. World Hunger: 12 Myths is a book I’ve sometimes recommended to point out that distribution of food seems to be a larger problem in ending hunger than actually producing the food itself.

    I know it is not classified this way but I would also say that (at least in the USA) much of the farmland lost is due to “suburban” rather than “urban” growth as when farmland is sold to developers they generally don’t build apartment buildings (urban) but rather homes and possibly McMansions-something you alluded to with comments on the need for greater population density (which is not only better for preserving land, but also much more energy and fuel efficient).

    I should say I’ve never been one to agree with Malthus and I don’t see reason to now. I’ve often seen people who believe his theory trying to use shortages or inequalities to justify his theories rather than looking at the direct causes of the various difficulties-conduct that doesn’t solve the problem(s). But I do see reasons to live with more sustainable lifestyles and business practices. I’m glad you touched on some of them. I just wanted to make the addition points on food distribution and suburbanization.

  3. Yeah, there’s more than enough to feed everyone if there was some super-efficient economic force that could distribute it evenly. I think the limit on how many people we could feed is where we get estimates of the Earth’s carrying capacity (9 billion+). I think an increase in production above what is necessary can aid in distribution by increasing supply and and driving down the market price. Right now, supply is a little more limited in relation to demand for all kinds of food and energy, raising the price, and making it unavailable to much of the world. By increasing supply, you are going to feed more people, even if you already have enough to feed everyone already. However, I think local production is the main solution for the world’s hungry so that they don’t have to incur transportation costs, have increased food security, and they don’t rely on food aid,

    You make good points, thanks for the comment.

  4. […] demand by 2030. Pope Benedict XVI called the hunger and maltnutrition facing the world ???unacc…To branch or not to branch EurekAlert!The closest wild relative of maize, teosinte, does not look […]

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