Food for thought from Breadbasket conference

What is Western Canada’s role in feeding an ever-more populous world?

It sounds like a simple question, but after two days of intense discussion at a recent summit, it now seems to be the most complex issue I’ve ever contemplated.

The Breadbasket 2.0 national summit, organized by Canada’s Public Policy Forum, started off with a comprehensive presentation by Alex McCalla, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Davis. He set the stage, but it was one of intricate design.

You’ve heard the basic problem — that by 2050 there will be 9.6 billion folks on Earth (a number recently revised upward), which is a tripling of the population in 1960.

We reached our first billion in 1825 and the second billion in 1927. McCalla pointed out that almost all of the increase in food production to feed the second billion — and the third — came from expansion of agricultural acres.

After 1960, as the world began to max out its growing space, increased yields became the major source of increased food supply. Unfortunately, the rate of yield increase is beginning to slow, even as the population continues to rise. In addition, there will be more need for high-quality food, particularly protein.

Those challenges will be accompanied by climate change, less available water and a loss of biodiversity, said McCalla.

Meanwhile, there has been a slowdown in public spending on agricultural research and development.

It sounds rather grim, when you look at the challenge that way.

“It’s big,” said McCalla, “but I hope it’s manageable.”

He recommended more R&D investment and a substantive World Trade Organization agreement that liberalizes trade.

In addition, we must develop alternative energy sources, although thus far, there has been little progress.

Better management of national resources and more efficient use of water will be crucial. In other words, a combination of productivity growth and policy change will be needed —fast — and on an international basis.

As he points out, you can’t have a world of rich countries that are exporters and poor countries that are importers if we are to solve the food security problem.

Where can Western Canada help, and still stay profitable? Stay tuned.

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