Proving Malthus Wrong: Sustainable Agriculture in 2050

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Guest Post: Dr. Robert L. Thompson is a senior fellow for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Over the past few months, we’ve watched as governments have been overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt, as governments across North Africa and the Middle East promised reforms, some even handing out cash to pacify angry citizens, and as demonstrations in Libya intensified into outright civil war. Although a number of issues have come to a head, one constant across countries is the rocketing prices of basic commodities, and the increasing need for more, and more efficient, food production. Fortunately, a solution is available: research-driven sustainable agriculture.

In February 2011, global food prices were the highest ever reported by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. The extreme poor – who spend over half, and sometimes as much as three-quarters – of their income on food, are the most vulnerable to these prices.

The 2008 food price spike increased the number of people going to bed hungry from 925 million to over 1 billion, and the World Bank estimates that 44 million people have been driven into poverty since June 2010 because of rising commodity prices. This, in turn, has led to widespread political instability. In 2008, food riots broke out in at least 20 countries, and one government head was deposed. We are seeing more of the same in 2010.

On top of this, the world population is projected to grow past 9 billion by 2050, forcing even more people to compete for available food supplies, potentially driving up prices further. And population growth is just one factor. As incomes and purchasing power in the developing world rise, food consumption will also increase. This is because extremely low-income people spend most of the first increments of their additional incomes on food, first to attain adequate caloric intake and then to reduce nutritional deficiencies. Their diets come to include more resource-intensive food products, such as meat, dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables – unleashing rapid growth in raw agriculture commodity demand.

By 2050 the world population will have grown by the equivalent of two Chinas – one by 2025 and the other between 2025 and 2050. As incomes of the world’s poorest people rise, consumption of more resource-intensive foods will increase as well. When one adds the growing demand for agricultural commodities as industrial raw materials, especially biofuels, we can easily see a scenario in which the world’s farmers are asked to double their output over the next 40 years. They must do this with little, if any, more land, and less water.

Compounding this formidable challenge is the fact that there is at most 12 percent more land realistically available for agriculture, mostly located in remote areas with inferior soil quality. Furthermore, as urban populations swell, they will likely outbid farmers for use of available fresh water – suggesting that farmers may need to triple water productivity. In addition, all agro-ecosystems will shift due to global climate change, meaning additional research will be needed simply to sustain present crop yields.

So to both reduce poverty and help farmers contribute more to the global food supply, we must help farmers in low-income countries do more, with less, in places that need it most. The solution? Research, development and distribution of technologies that produce more agricultural output using less land and water.

Tools available today, including plant breeding and biotechnology, can make presently unusable soils productive and increase the genetic potential of individual crops – enhancing drought and stress tolerance, for example – while also producing gains in yields. Existing tools can also internalize plants’ resistance to disease, and even improve a plant’s nutritional content – meaning consumers can get more nutritional value without increasing their consumption. Furthermore, modern high-productivity agriculture minimizes farmers’ impact on the environment. Failure to embrace these technologies will result in further destruction of remaining forests.

Adoption of technologies that produce more output from fewer resources has been hugely successful from an economic standpoint: prior to the price spike in 2008, there was a 150-year downward trend in the real price of food. The jury is still out on whether the long-term downward trend will resume, prices will flatten out on a new higher plateau, or they will trend upward in the future. The key is investing in research in the public and private sectors to increase agricultural productivity faster than global demand grows.

Long ago, British scholar Thomas Malthus predicted that the human population would eventually outgrow its ability to feed itself. However, Malthus has been proven wrong for more than two centuries precisely because he underestimated the power of agricultural research and technology to increase productivity faster than demand. There is no more reason for Malthus to be right in the 21st century than he was in the 19th or 20th – but only if we work to support, not impede, continued agricultural research and adoption of new technologies around the world.

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Dr. Robert L. Thompson is a senior fellow for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He previously served as the Gardner Endowed Chair in Agricultural Policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dean of Agriculture at Purdue University and Director of Rural Development at the World Bank, and is a former president of the International Association of Agricultural Economists. Dr. Thompson was raised on a dairy farm in New York.

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Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her research focuses on the genetics of rice. With her husband, she co-wrote Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. She writes a blog of the same name.