Our Gap in Food Production

November 2, 2010 08:16 AM

Kofi Annan is distressed. His 10 years as secretary-general of the United Nations did not prepare him for the challenges of his new role as chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Developing sustainable agriculture to feed a starving population is a complex and endless effort.

The proportion of people suffering from hunger may be declining, but the pace of that progress is unsatisfactory, Annan said at a World Food Prize event last month in Des Moines, Iowa. Without coordinated and urgent action, the most basic goal of reducing poverty and world hunger is at risk of not being met by 2015 in many countries.


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> A new index developed by the Global Harvest Initiative quantifies the difference between current agricultural productivity growth and future needs.

“Closing this gap is not just a moral imperative; it lies at the core of a more secure and equitable world,” Annan said.

One year ago, the Food and Agriculture Organization declared that global agricultural output needs to double by 2050 in order to feed the world. Sustainably meeting that goal will require total agricultural productivity to grow by a significant rate annually from a relatively fixed bundle of resources.

Yet in the past seven years, the growth rate has lagged, according to a new report by Global Harvest Initiative. Experts are calling this difference between the historical ag productivity trend and the required higher rate a “productivity gap.”

Global Harvest’s 2010 Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report, developed with the Farm Foundation and USDA Economic Research Service (ERS), quantifies for the first time the difference between the current rate of global agricultural productivity growth and the pace required to meet future needs.

Doubling agricultural output to meet global demand by 2050 will require average annual growth of
at least 1.75% in total-factor productivity (TFP), said Neil Conklin, president of the Farm Foundation and author of the report. TFP is the increase in output per unit of the total resources employed in production. Between 2000 and 2007, however, TFP growth averaged only 1.4% per year, according to ERS estimates.

“To close the gap without additional land and resources, we must increase the rate of productivity growth an average of 25% more per year in the next 40 years,” Conklin said. Productivity will need to grow faster than that during the next two decades, when the population will be increasing more rapidly than it will as it levels off by 2050.

While economists have developed estimates of agricultural TFP for most industrialized nations, these measures have only recently become available for the major developing countries. ERS combined country-specific studies with additional analysis of productivity growth in order to construct a global measure of agricultural TFP growth since 1961. This index identifies how much of total agricultural production growth is due to expanding resource use, such as additional land, labor, fertilizer and water, and how much is due to improving TFP.



Complex and Crucial. Farmer and philanthropist Howard G. Buffett understands agricultural growth rates and believes the attention being paid to food security and farm development is long overdue. Buffett spoke at the World Food Prize event about how his foundation alone has spent more than $400 million in global food aid and agricultural development projects.

Buffett believes that hunger is more often tied to conflict in developing countries than to the availability of resources.

“We have to understand the conflict and politics of a country as we approach ag development,” Buffett said. “There is no simple answer. Food security is complicated; agriculture is complicated.”

As a result, it is vitally important that the developed world upholds its commitments to countries like Africa, with agriculture as a priority for support, Annan said.

The private sector, too, has a huge role to play, including investing in the new agriculture opportunities that are opening up. This includes investment in large, commercial farms that can both encourage economies of scale and foster the uptake of new technologies.

“This is not a simple matter of big farms or small,” Annan said. “When done responsibly, large-scale farming systems can play an important role in directly supporting small farmers through technical advice and support and access to markets.”

Care must always be taken to ensure that local communities are consulted and their rights to land and natural resources are protected, he said. As the world knows, this partnership approach has not always been followed in the past.

“The aim is not only to feed the hungry today but to eliminate hunger by creating a sustainable, secure and global food system,” Annan stated.

Fight Hunger and Misperceptions

More than 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. At the same time, a growing education gap between the people who produce food and those who eat it is creating a misunderstanding of agriculture and people who make a living from the land.

Put those two issues together and you have the motivation for our forming the Farm Journal Foundation as a philanthropic organization dedicated to serving the agricultural industry.

The Foundation’s first effort is Farmers Feeding the World, a campaign to fight hunger and educate the public on agriculture’s role in feeding the world. Our goal is to raise money from individuals, organizations and agribusinesses to be devoted to two endeavors: putting food in the hands of the hungry and educating the public about sustainable commercial agriculture.

The nonprofit effort will provide food relief through respected organizations. Heifer International, a well-known development organization with food sustainability programs worldwide, is our first partner.

Face of a Farmer. Indiana crop producer Kip Tom, our farmer spokesman for Farmers Feeding the World, says production agriculture has a great story to tell that is not often heard.

“The Farmers Feeding the World effort speaks to the very fiber of what we’re all about: producing safe, abundant and affordable food today and into the future,” he says. Tom is leading by example by donating a penny for every bushel of corn above trend-line yields on every acre he farms.

As educational outreach, the Foundation is producing television specials and creating a traveling exhibit that showcases today’s sustainable agriculture. The interactive exhibit will visit dozens of events that include rural and urban crowds.

Check online at www.farmersfeedingtheworld.com for more information.

—Charlene Finck

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