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Global Food Outlook Improves, But Plenty of Challenges

Five years after a global food price shortage created a backlog of one-billion hungry and malnourished people, the crisis has subsided. However, the 2014 Global Agricultural Productivity Report (GAP) presented at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, today reveals insufficient progress toward producing enough nutritious and affordable food for a global population of 9.6 billion by 2050.

By 2050, the world’s population will increase by 33.7%: from 7.18 billion to 9.6 billion people.

Global agricultural output will have to double in order to meet the expected demand by 2050 for food, feed, fiber, and fuel.

“This serves as a call to action to invest in proven strategies that boost productivity and conserve the natural resource base,” says Margaret Zeigler, executive director, Global Harvest Initiative (GHI). GHI, formed in 2009, is a private/public initiative of five agricultural member companies along with 12 consultative partners.

Combined with this population increase, accelerating urbanization and a growing middle class will double demand for livestock, poultry and fish by 2050.

Efforts to reach this goal will exacerbate water resource pressures. “The amount of extracted water worldwide used for agriculture will increase to 89% by 2050, up from 70% today,” Zeigler says.

In 2010, the Global Harvest Initiative calculated that global agriculture Total Factor Productivity (TFP) must grow by an average rate of at least 1.75% annually in order to double ag output through productivity gains by 2050. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, relying on FAO and other data sources, estimates that since 2002, TFP has been rising by an average annual rate of only 1.69%.

“The impact of this productivity gap, compounded over the next 40 years, will fall hardest on low-income, food-deficit countries,” she says.

However, the GAP Report highlighted hopeful progress in India 50 years after the Green Revolution was launched. “New revolutions are beginning to bear fruit,” Zeigler says.

After struggling with crop failures and famines following its independence in 1947, India obtained self-sufficiency in food grains by 1980, and now is a net agricultural exporter with $41 billion in global sales in 2012-1013.

“Over the past 16 years, India’s middle class increased from just one million to 108 million,” Zeigler says.

Women farmers’ groups are playing a key role in this progress. India has developed two new programs designed to help women farmers overcome cultural and gender bias and improve their skills, training, and increase their incomes.

Despite this progress, India confronts new challenges: a rising middle class demanding a more diverse diet, malnutrition that continues to plague millions, a stagnating staple grain productivity, and diminishing water resources.

“Unsustainable irrigation water use practices are depleting India’s aquifers,” Zeigler says.

The Report concludes that adapting to climate change and extreme weather events are looming challenges over the future of global agricultural resources and food security issues.

A distinguished panel moderated by Zeigler followed the highlights of the GAP Report: Dilip Kulkarni, president, Agri-food Division, Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd; Keith Fuglie, USDA ERS; Tom Herlehy, International Development Division for Land O’Lakes and Jesus Madrazo, vice president of corporate engagement of Monsanto and GHI Board chair.

“Advances in the 1970s and 1980s in agricultural research and extension paid off 10 to 20 years later when farmers accessed and adopted the technology,” Fuglie says. “Unfortunately in the 1990s, we lost momentum. There are real gaps in providing African farmers needed information. The last few years, this has started to turn around, but it may be another decade before we’ll see the benefits of renewed growth and lower food prices.”

Herlehy adds. “What’s needed in Africa is better infrastructure, storage, and processing so there’s less waste. A total of 30-40% of food on farms there never reaches the plate. It’s wasted on the way from the farm to the supermarket. This is critical to reaching TFP.”

Fuglie stressed that government is in the best position to invest in growth through research. “A lot of science and technology cannot be patented by private companies, so private R & D is limited. There’s a strong role for public sector research.”

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