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