Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Food for more

McGill: With a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the planet must find ways to significantly increase food production by, for example, expanding irrigation or improving crop genetics. And this, despite the threat of unpredictable extreme weather conditions. It’s a sobering statistic. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region alone will have to increase their food production by 77 per cent by 2050 in order to feed their people, according to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization. This is a figure that worries Chandra Madramootoo, especially given the increasing threat extreme weather poses to crops. Madramootoo, dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at McGill and founding chair of the annual McGill Conference on Global Food Security, launched in 2008, spoke to Headway about the various avenues researchers around the world are looking at to try to feed a growing world population.

What are some of the current challenges related to food security and production?
Climactic extremes brought about by climate change, such as floods and drought, are one of the major challenges to producing enough food. Predictions by the United Nations Environment Program indicate that extreme drought and heat will be responsible for some of the largest losses in cereal production by 2080, in particular in Africa and Asia. But there is also a very limited land base available for the expansion of food production. There are potentially 45 to 50 million hectares that could be used, but these are mostly areas that have poor soils and limited road access or that are ecologically fragile.

Aren’t we growing more and more food?
Crop yields are a major area of concern. From the early 1960s to the late 1980s, we saw strong increases in crop yields, thanks to new high-yielding varieties of cereals, but over the past 20 years, that growth has dropped dramatically. For example, the increase in wheat yields has dropped from an annual average of 2.75 per cent to 0.5 per cent. And these numbers are a global average, so they include high-producing regions like the midwestern United States. In developing regions of the world, particularly in Africa, crop yields are declining.
One of the ways crop yields can be improved is through irrigation, which has enormous potential. At the moment, irrigated land represents about 20 per cent of all cropland, yet it produces 40 per cent of the world’s food. By comparison, about 80 per cent of cropland is rainfed but produces only 60 per cent of the planet’s food. Developing improved irrigation systems presents its own challenges though: the African continent is endowed with significant water resources, but, unfortunately, for political, financial or logistical reasons, these countries are often unable to tap into their irrigation potential. A lot of water resources are subject to transboundary agreements, for example. And irrigation depends on enormous infrastructure investments that many governments just don’t have the capacity to support.

How is technology helping us improve food security?
Technology is helping in many ways. It can alleviate the physical demands involved in the production of certain cereals and help people grow more palatable or more nutritious food. It can inform decisions that lead to better crops (see “Smartfarming” on page 30). Improved crop genetics are also a promising avenue. A lot of efforts are focused on developing new cultivars that can handle pests and disease, as well as environmental stresses – water, drought, heat – generated by our changing climate. Once we identify the traits we want and breed new varieties, we must then have mechanisms in place that allow these new cultivars to be replicated and reach farmers. Maize has been a great success story in that regard, going from seven varieties before 1970 to 455 varieties being used in Eastern and Southern Africa today. The private sector played a major role in getting these varieties out to producers. It’s important for governments and the private sector to work together in order to improve the delivery of modern varieties of seeds to farmers.

What else should governments keep in mind?
The non-agronomic side of food production – markets, policies, education and training, and infrastructure – has played an increasingly important role in global agricultural productivity growth since the 1960s. In fact, these elements have largely outweighed the agronomic factors in most of the world, except in Asia. If we want to make significant productivity gains in the next decades, the challenge now is to maintain that success at the same time as we try to increase crop yields.