Strategy needed to improve productivity in poorer nations

The need to double global agricultural production by 2050 is a phrase repeated so often in a warning voice that it might cause anxiety and despair.


However, a full understanding of the situation shows that the true task is to help developing world farmers increase productivity growth.


Farmers in the developed world are already keeping pace. 


The food price shock of the late 2000s turned attention to agriculture as never before.


It was sobering to realize demand for food could outpace the ability to provide it in some locations and that food inflation could spark riots and social upheaval.


What would happen as population rose and the growing ranks of the relatively prosperous demanded more calories and protein?


A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization study reported food production would need to grow by 60 percent by 2050 to avoid growing malnutrition.


Other assessments said production must grow by 100 percent to solve hunger and meet all food and industrial needs, prompting many conferences and summits on how to meet this daunting goal.


Some say desperate measures are needed, like slashing meat consumption and shifting feed production into human food crops.


However, despite all the hand wringing, the world’s farmers are already on track to meet the need, according to a measurement by the Global Harvest Initiative.


GHI is a group of companies, including DuPont, Elanco, IBM, John Deere and Monsanto, along with consultative partners including Purdue University, think-tanks and environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy.


GHI created an annual Global Agricultural Productivity Report and devised a formula to measure how much productivity must grow on average to double production by 2050. 


The target was 1.75 percent per year.


Sustainably improving productivity means growing more while using less water, land, labour and other inputs. Post-harvest losses and waste would also have to be reduced.


The first assessment in 2010 covering 2000-07 fell short at 1.4 percent. 


The good news is that the 2013 report, which looks at 2001-10, shows that the average growth rate has increased to 1.81 percent, exceeding the amount needed to meet the 2050 goal. 


However the report notes there are vast regional differences. Sub-Saharan Africa and other poor regions fall far short of the productivity improvement needed to match population and income growth.


Without productivity growth, environmentally sensitive land will be cropped and more food will have to be imported, sending away money that would benefit the local economy.


However, with the right strategies and investment, this gap can be closed.


Productivity can grow if small acreage farmers in developing countries have better access to agronomic advice, machinery, good seed, better technology and market information. This is especially true for women, who are a large part of the farm workforce but are often ignored. 


Better storage technology can reduce food waste. Risk management and credit systems are needed so farmers need not sell when prices are low. Fair value chains will eliminate middlemen who drain away profits.


And farm profits are critical. If there is money in agriculture, farmers will invest to increase productivity and companies will invest in research, new products and services.


We need not despair. We have the know how. We need only the resolve.


Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen and D’Arce McMillan collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.