24th April 2014
Food shortages could be most critical world issue by mid-century
The world is only a few decades away from a major food crisis, according to a top scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“For the first time in human history, food production will be limited on a global scale by the availability of land, water and energy,” said Dr. Fred Davies, senior adviser for the agency’s bureau of food security. “Food issues could become as politically destabilising by 2050 as energy issues are today.”
Davies, who is also a Texas A&M AgriLife Regents Professor of Horticultural Sciences, addressed the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting in Washington, D.C. on the “monumental challenge of feeding the world.”
Global population will increase 30 percent to 9 billion people by mid-century. However, that would require a 70 percent increase in food production to meet demand from the rising middle classes, he said.
“But resource limitations will constrain global food systems,” Davies explained. “The increases currently projected for crop production from biotechnology, genetics, agronomics and horticulture will not be sufficient to meet food demand.”
The ability to discover new ways to keep pace with food demand has been curtailed by cutbacks in spending on research, he added.
“U.S. agricultural productivity has averaged less than 1.2 percent per year between 1990 and 2007,” he said. “More efficient technologies and crops will need to be developed — and equally important, better ways for applying these technologies locally for farmers — to address this challenge.”
When new technologies are developed, they often do not reach the small-scale farmer worldwide.
“A greater emphasis is needed in high-value horticultural crops,” he continued. “Those create jobs and economic opportunities for rural communities and enable more profitable, intense farming.”
Horticultural crops, Davies noted, are 50 percent of the farm-gate value of all crops produced in the U.S. He also made the connection between the consumption of fruits and vegetables and chronic disease prevention and pointed to research centres in the U.S. that are making links between farmers, biologists and chemists, grocers, health care practitioners and consumers. That connection, he suggested, will also be vital in the push to grow enough food to feed people in the coming decades.
"Agricultural productivity, food security, food safety, the environment, health, nutrition and obesity – they are all interconnected," Davies said. One in eight people worldwide, he said, already suffers from chronic undernourishment and 75 percent of the world's chronically poor are in mid-income nations such as China, India, Brazil and the Philippines.
"The perfect storm for horticulture and agriculture is also an opportunity," Davies added. "Consumer trends – such as views on quality, nutrition, production origin and safety – impact what foods we consume. Also, urban agriculture favours horticulture." For example, he said, the fastest growing segment of new farmers in California is female, non-Anglos, who are "intensively growing horticultural crops on small acreages."