According to a mid-October report by the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI), feeding a burgeoning world population in coming decades will be a daunting, but achievable, task. Released at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, the 2012 Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report calls for more research and the expansion of free trade and planting of GMO crops.

For more on GHI (which is backed by non-profits as well as by companies such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Deere), see here.

Speakers at the conference also tackled the failure to feed the world’s “truly poor” numbering 800 million-plus, climate change, and the problems created by the broadening chasm between links in the world’s food supply chains.

The GAP report makes use of an index – based on “the measurement of total factor productivity (TFP), which reflects the amounts of total inputs used per unit of output, including comparisons of the growth of output to the growth of input use,” according to the GHI – and concluded the following about four world regions:

  • Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Only 13 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s total food demand in 2050 can be met if the region’s TFP rate remains constant. This significant gap will need to be closed through investments in productivity improvements, selective expansion, intensification, and trade.”

  • Middle East and Northern Africa.

“The Middle East and Northern Africa region will be able to satisfy 83 percent of total food demand in 2050 by maintaining its current TFP rate. With increasing demands on limited water supplies, investments in the agricultural value chain will be needed to maintain or advance food production levels. The remainder will need to be met through trade and safety net programs.”

  • East Asia.

“Due to increased and changing food demands, East Asia will be able to satisfy 74 percent of total food demand in 2050 by maintaining its current TFP rate. The remainder will need to be met through imports and productivity increases.”

  • Latin America and the Caribbean.

“The region encompassing Latin America and the Caribbean will produce a substantial food surplus by 2050 if the current TFP rate is maintained. However, investment is needed in infrastructure and continued productivity improvements to maximize the region’s prospects to become a net food exporter.”

Production necessities, backing research

So, considering all that, at what rate will we need to grow productivity in order to double food supply by 2050?

To do so in 40 years, an “average annual compounded rate of about 1.75 percent” will be needed, said Keith Fuglie, Chief of the Resource, Environmental, and Science Policy Branch in the Resource and Rural Economics Division of the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS).

“Then they asked: Can we do that just with current resources? … And what policies would it take to get that kind of growth strategy or to maintain it? They took the Global TFP Index that ERS has developed and asked if we’re on the right path. At least for this decade, it looks like the rate at which global agricultural TFP is growing is roughly on a path that would allow global food supply to double in 40 years if the rate can be maintained.”

Fuglie warned against short-term views of agricultural research funding and strongly backed such programs as a major component of feeding future generations. He also warned of the consequences of any lapses. “The current accelerated rate of TFP growth we see, is really the fruit of policy decisions made years ago, even decades ago, to raise research capacity in many developing countries. To maintain this rate, or even accelerate the rate, requires continued robust investment in agricultural research and extending that investment more equitably worldwide to raise up areas that continue to see low productivity growth.”

Later, Fuglie returned to the same pro-research argument and said not to underestimate the lag time between investment and pay-off of increased productivity at the farm level. “If we grow complacent and say, ‘Well, things are going fine and we don’t really need to expand research further or maintain our research investments’ we won’t see the consequences of those decisions until a decade, or two. At that point, it will be very difficult to turn the productivity slow-down around quickly.”

Hard truths, World Bank

What’s the crux and importance of achieving greater productivity growth?

“Living in the United States, we live in an era where we’re used to (general economic growth),” said Christopher Delgado, strategy and policy adviser for agriculture and rural development at the World Bank during a panel discussion at the conference. “We’re used to rapid growth and don’t spend enough time thinking about what’s at the basis of that.

“Total Factor Productivity (TFP) growth is really what’s behind it. We think there’s something on the order to 800 million truly poor people (in the world) – their total livelihood is less than $1.25 per day in 2005 dollars. We believe that 75 percent of them live in rural areas and most get a significant portion of their livelihood from agriculture.

“If they don’t get their productivity up, if they’re not part of the solution as well as part of the problem, there’s no way for them to survive. It’s a survival issue. … Productivity is not enough but it’s an absolute necessity. There is no solution to world poverty or world hunger without it.”

Delgado -- founding program manager of the Global Agricultural and Food Security program and current program manager of the Global Food Crisis Response Program – said the GHI report “has credibly shown that significant differences exist not just across countries but within countries. The whole issue of how to extend, broaden and increase the extension of productivity growth is absolutely critical…

“There (has) been mention made of (Asia), where … about 90 percent of all rice is produced and consumed. … In situations like that, countries, even if they do need to import, aren’t going to be very happy about it. They’ll continue to produce their own rice at very high cost. Japan is an example, but there are others.”

In such circumstances, trust is absolutely essential, said Delgado. While there will “inevitably be much more trade … it will only come as people really build trust and rely on someone else to grow (their) food. Why else would you have sovereign funds of developing countries getting into land investments in other countries as opposed to an importation strategy? It has to be because you don’t trust markets … or you don’t trust governments.”

Delgado said everyone must understand the “underlying world has changed” and pointed to issues such as increasing water scarcity. “Right now, people say 18 percent of the cropped area in the world is water-stressed. It will be 44 percent, some say, by 2050.”

Market forces, climate change

Delgado also addressed climate change. “We still don’t understand a lot about climate change, but it’s another game-changer. … There all these game-changers out there that will provoke reactions among the decision-makers in the world that, by and large, based on experience, will make things worse.

“What we really need is a world that overcomes trust barriers and gets solutions where a market solution works out better for everyone, especially for the very poor. The non-market solutions, if you’ll excuse the language, really screw the poor.”

That’s what happened in 2008 and 2010 when “large chunks of the world – especially, the better-off world – isolated themselves from the markets. All the market adjustment to high prices, both in production but especially consumption, is borne by those who can (afford) it the least.”

Delgado pointed out that when the price of grain goes up very few, except the poor, are terribly impacted. “It’s the people in rural Ethiopia who spend 80 percent of their total livelihood just getting basic calories. They’re the ones who do the price adjustment at the end of the day.”

While the GHI report doesn’t take into account the impact of climate change on food production specifically, Delgado dove right in. “As an individual, as a personal statement, I don’t think the political leadership in northern countries really gets it. I really don’t. … The reason is political leaders respond to body politics and body politic doesn’t get it.

“At some peril to myself, I’ll tell you a story. (The World Bank) did a World Development Report, which is our signature thing, on climate change. The first draft came out … and I was the designated commentator, in house, (representing agriculture).

“I went into the internal meeting and asked to speak. I said, ‘Climate change is really important to agriculture.’ There was a set of blank looks from people who were basically environmentalists. You know, ‘Why would agriculture have any interest in climate change?’ … This was news.

“Now, if you go to central Vietnam everyone from the prime minister down to the man in the street – urban or rural – everyone is very concerned about climate change. The way it looks now, the ocean will be into the mountains of Laos in no time. They’ll be underwater.”

Delgado provided another example that, while not specifically on climate change, “can tell you what can happen: Almost all the growth in grain exports … since 1990 have come from the Black Sea region and … Latin America. Their market share has gone from something like 11 percent to 29 percent. Those are areas naturally, historically, farm more subject to climate interference with harvest than traditional grain-exporting areas.

“So, even without climate change, that’s one of the factors – and you could see it clearly in 2010 – major disruptions in supply. This will continue over time.

“If you add in climate change, which we think impacts variable climate areas even more than stable climate areas, it will get much worse. Scientists tell us we’ll be lucky to get away with 2 degrees centigrade (in change). It’s actually happening faster and worse than we thought.

“As a body politic, we don’t get it. I don’t think there’s anyone more than aggies that worry about that fact.”

Are we trying to solve problems that structurally can’t be fixed by using the current set-up?

“Supply chains, back when we all used to live in villages, you went to whoever sold what you needed,” said Delgado. “I need a cup of milk and I’ll come to you and the milk will be fresh and I have reasonable assurance it’s this morning’s milks and not last night’s and that there won’t be too much water in it. If there is, I won’t come back or talk to you again.”

Now, that immediacy and connection to agriculture is being stretched. There are long supply chains that “raise all kinds of food safety issues,” he continued. “You’ve got all sorts of quality issues. As supply chains become longer and more anonymous – and that’s what the implication of the trading world is – and where (non-visible) traits matter in products … you need some process of certification. You need some form of institution. In Economic jargon, they’re transaction costs that call for an institutional solution.”

Nowhere is that more true than for a small player. “So, as supply chains become much more anonymous and we worry about food security of the poor, we must think much more about the kind of institutions that fill the new needs occasioned by the lengthening and more anonymous world we live in.”