Steps to Feed the World

July 25, 2009 01:46 PM

To end world hunger is much more than a likely answer during a beauty pageant. In fact, it is one of the greatest challenges facing agriculture today.
During the 2009 World Agricultural Forum, global leaders gathered in St. Louis to discuss the challenges farmers face, with the hope that by fixing the fundamental problems, food can reach the mouths that need it.

Jim Bolger, former chairman of the Forum's Advisory Board, says the same amount of effort to solve the world's financial problems should be applied to fighting poverty. "For me, the speed of response to the financial crisis is in sharp contrast to the somewhat reluctant response of meeting world poverty issues. You can park unsold cars, but you can't park poverty and hunger,” he says.

While no silver bullet to feed the world was determined, four overarching themes were identified.

1. Make trade free and fair.
With free trade, producers throughout the world can compensate for a bad year in one region, says Carl Hausmann, president and CEO of Bunge North America. "By maintaining the productivity of the world's most environmentally sustainable croplands, we produce more crops more efficiently than if each country grew its own,” he adds.

Countries' competitive advantages and production capabilities have to be considered when discussing the world's agricultural market system, says J.B. Penn, John Deere chief economist.

"The food consumption centers of the world are going to be different than the surface food–producing centers of the world,” Penn explains. "That means we are going to have to have expanded trade.”

2. Fix the politics. Unfortunately, food challenges go much deeper than trade, notes Nuhu Hatibu, CEO of Kilimo Trust, a group that develops market-led sustainable agriculture in East Africa. "Our challenge is in the politics of food,” Hatibu says.

"As I was watching the American politicians from both parties debate, I was struck by how passionate they were about being energy independent,” Hatibu says. "Then I was wondering, how do you make people passionate about becoming food independent? There, I saw the problem: the politics of food security.”

Others agree. "It's not a technical problem to feed the world,” Penn says. "It's a matter of politics.”

Economic development occurs when the political situation is right to attract investments, he adds. "With investments come technology, improved inputs, trading systems and everything else you need,” Penn says.

4. Maximize technology. Experts agree the right technology is available or will soon be available to produce enough food to feed the world's population. The problem lies with technology availability.

"There is ongoing pressure across the world to ban the tools that are responsible for the gain we've made in agricultural productivity,” says David Morgan, president of Syngenta Seeds.

He says the world needs to embrace agriculture as a primary and sustainable source for energy for the human biological machine and the mechanical machines humans use. "We must ensure that farmers have timely access to the technologies that can meet the global agricultural challenges.”

Estimates show that two-thirds of the world's population will live in drought- or water-stressed conditions by 2025, Morgan says. To overcome such obstacles, farmers must embrace the technology available and "achieve more crop per drop,” he adds.

In addition to improved technology, sustainable actions need to be taken to guarantee farmers can continue to produce high-quality food, explains Michael Bennett, chairman of the board for The Fertilizer Institute.

"We must make certain that soil nutrients are replaced after each harvest,” he says. "Only by doing so will we ensure that our soils remain a reservoir of food production and the agent for a food-secure world.”

5. Avoid market interference. Penn says there is always, in times like this, severe political pressure to take measures that are expedient in the short term but turn out to be counterproductive after a while.

"There is a growing role for governments everywhere,” he says. "History is replete with lessons, especially in the food and ag sector, where distortions caused by government intervention actually reduce, rather than improve, food security.”

Penn says governments should avoid market interference in production ag. "The agriculture sector is probably faring better than other sectors during this downturn because today farmers can respond to market signals,” he says.

"The challenge is that we don't go backward and we try to better position global agriculture to ensure adequate production capacity to meet growing production needs.”


You can e-mail Sara Schafer at

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