Those born in the mid-1970s will see the world’s population double in their lifetime, from 4 billion, in 1974, to 8 billion, in 2023 (Worldometers, 2017). There is no shortage of discussions on what the maximum sustainable population of the world is, but two things are not debated: Our world’s population is growing at an unprecedented rate, and we need to further increase agricultural production capacity. Our current food production practices will not keep up with the growing demand. Our inability to increase production levels in pace with population expansion is a growing problem, caused in large part by the slowing rate of yield increases due to technological and scientific advancement, environmental issues such as weather patterns, and waste due to poor infrastructure and corruption.
Time for another scientific breakthrough
The second half of the 20th century enjoyed a massive increase in agricultural production due to technology and scientific advancement, but the improvements have not continued at the same rate into the 21st century. A boom in agricultural output started about 70 years ago, largely due to technology and scientific discoveries (Ball E., 2013). Companies such as Monsanto and John Deere revolutionized agriculture and drastically changed all aspects of the food production industries by genetically improving seeds and simplifying high-tech farming through mechanization. In the 30 years from 1956 to 1986 corn production increased 151%, but in the 30 years from 1986 to 2016 yield only increased by 46% (National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2017). We haven’t discovered or marketed the next wave of technological breakthroughs needed to increase yields and feed the forthcoming billion people.
Asia and Africa are lands of opportunity
The last several years have been particularly rough on farmers in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, where droughts and bad cyclical weather patterns have ruined crops and croplands. Over 80% of the freshwater in Africa and Asia is now used for agricultural production and this percentage is climbing (UN FAO, 2014). We have lost all the gains from the first 10 year period of the millennium, called the “benevolent decade” in Africa. Farmers, suddenly faced with poverty, are leaving their land for cities to find work which is causing food prices to rise as the continent becomes a net food importer (Rakotoarisoa, 2011). As the world’s population grows, these cyclical patterns have a greater impact on worldwide food availability.
Food waste is a step backwards
In the USA, about half of all fresh, nutritious food is wasted. South America currently exports 4 times more than it imports, but that could be much higher with better infrastructure. An additional $1 trillion dollars in infrastructure investment is needed (Global Harvest Initiative, 2016) worldwide to enable a greater flow of agricultural products from areas of high production to areas of high need. Much of this money is available from the private sector, but governmental policies in many of the hardest-hit areas offer no protection, which increases risks to the industry. Corruption exacerbates this problem by raising the cost of food production through payment of bribes and restricting the flow of seed, chemicals, and medicine for livestock in areas where there is a greater need. This pattern of waste and reduced production highlights one of the most tragic problems of global food production: the imbalance between areas of high food availability and low food availability.
Let’s pull together
The inability of food producers to increase production levels in pace with population expansion is a growing problem caused in large part by the slowing rate of yield gains due to technological and scientific advancement, environmental matters such as weather patterns, and waste due to inadequate infrastructure and corruption. The world is still hunting for the next wave of technological and scientific progress in the areas of mechanization, automation, and genetics to help increase production efficiencies. The tight balance between agricultural production and demand is so precarious that one dry cycle devastated the farming industries in several of the neediest nations, and numerous others are on the tipping point. And yet other countries produce far below their capacities or, in some cases, allow much of their food to be wasted due to lacking infrastructure and poor government policies. In order for the next billion people in the world to achieve food security, we need to address these problems.
Worldometers (2017). World Population: Past, Present, and Future. Worldometers. http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/#pastfuture
Ball, E., Schimmelpfennig, D., & Sun L. W., (2013). Is U.S. Agricultural Productivity Growth Slowing? Applied Economic Perspectives & Policy, Sep2013, Vol. 35 (Issue 3), 435-450
National Agricultural Statistics Service (2017). Crop Production Annual Summary. USDA Economics, Statistics and Market Information System. http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/viewDocumentInfo.do?documentID=1047
UN FAO (2014). Aquastat. http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/
Rakotoarisoa, M., Iafrate, M., Paschali, M. (2011). Why has Africa Become a Net Food Importer? http://www.fao.org/docrep/015/i2497e/i2497e00.pdf
Global Harvest Initiative (2016). Private Sector Involvement. Global Agricultural Productivity Report, October 2016, 47-54