Customers rush to buy bread, a staple in high demand in Mozambique, after it arrives at a bakery in the south of the country as wheat ran short and food prices rose in 2008 (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).
A leader for a special report on feeding the world’s growing population, published in the Economist recently (24 February 2011), recommends targeting the poor with food aid and support, removing agricultural trade barriers to poor countries, cutting agricultural subsidies in rich countries, and, last but not least, investing much more in research conducted by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), to which the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) belongs.
‘Around the world, the food system is in crisis. Prices have rocketed; they are now higher in real terms than at any time since 1984. . . . Food has played some role (how large is hard to tell) in the uprisings in the Middle East. High prices are adding millions to the number who go to bed hungry each night. This is the second price spike in less than four years. Companies are sounding the alarm and the G20 grouping of the world’s largest economies has put “food security” top of its 2011 to-do list. . . .
‘At the moment big structural shifts, such as the growth of China and India, are influencing prices less than one might think. The two Asian giants are demanding more food (and more types of food), but so far their own farmers have largely satisfied that, so they have not needed to trade much (though that would change dramatically if China were to import wheat this year).
‘Over coming decades, though, such fundamental factors will matter more. A good guess is that food production will have to rise by 70% by 2050 to keep pace with population growth, the explosion of developing countries’ megacities and the changes in diet that wealth and urbanisation bring. Big increases will be harder to achieve than in the past because there is little unfarmed land to bring into production, no more water and, in some places, little to be gained by heaping on more fertiliser. Climate change may well exacerbate these problems. For the first time since the 1960s the yields of the world’s most important crops, wheat and rice, are rising more slowly than the global population (see special report). The world cannot feed today’s 7 billion people properly. How on earth can it feed the expected 9 billion in 2050? . . .
‘Let them eat research
‘It can be done. Targeting help to the poorest is part of the solution. . . .
‘As for boosting farm output, it will come as no surprise that this newspaper believes that a big part of the answer is removing trade barriers and cutting subsidies. . . .
‘Although governments can help a lot by getting out of the way in what has been a woefully distorted market, in one respect they need to do more, by reversing the decline in public spending on agricultural research. Unlike other farm subsidies, basic research works. The Green Revolution began with public research. So did Brazil’s recent farming successes. Western countries have not learned the lesson. They have complacently cut back on the work done in universities and international institutions. It was a huge mistake. Basic farm research helps the whole world—and is a bargain. One billion dollars would provide many billions of benefits in terms of people fed and food riots forestalled.
‘Rich countries should therefore properly finance the “CG system” [CGIAR, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research], a network of government-backed institutes, carrying out research into rice, wheat, maize and livestock. And the emerging giants should chip in, too. China, India, Brazil and Russia complain that they do not get the respect they deserve. Here is a chance for them to earn it by helping underwrite a global public good. They should contribute to the CG system (as Mexico, to its credit, is doing) and make their national research available more widely. Few things matter to human happiness more than the yields of staple crops.’
Read the whole article at the Economist: Crisis prevention: What is causing food prices to soar and what can be done about it, 24 February 2011.