Feeding Nine Billion Earthlings
Saturday 10 March 2007
Will the planet be able to supply enough to eat to the nine billion humans it will carry in 2050? Agronomists worldwide are asking themselves this question: all the more cautiously, given that, today, of the 6.5 billion people living on Earth, 2 billion are malnourished and 854 million are "starving" on less than 2,200 calories a day. "The challenge already exists to produce 30 percent more food so that humans may eat enough now, then to increase production by 2050 to feed nine billion people," says Marcel Mazoyer, a professor at AgroParisTechn. "To attain those objectives, global agricultural production will have to double."
How? The first way is to increase cultivated land surfaces: arable land today covers 1.5 billion hectares [1 hectare=100,000 square meters]. That figure could almost be doubled, according to the prospective study, "World agriculture: towards 2030/2050," conducted by the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization). Based on satellite images, the study deems that 2.8 billion hectares altogether are utilizable, with land available notably in Africa and South America. "It is possible to multiply cultivated surface by 1.7, while reserving the land necessary for habitation and infrastructure and preserving forests," deems Mr. Mazoyer. This very optimistic hypothesis is, however, disputed by other experts. "The apparently empty land is already used as fallow land for crop rotation," emphasizes Michel Griffon of Cirad (Center for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development). "I think the FAO's estimates are unrealistic."
The second way to respond to the demographic challenge is to increase the average yields of cultivated areas: a solution the majority of agronomists consider realizable. In developed countries, intensive agriculture allows elevated yields (two to ten tons per hectare). But yields can't be increased there by much more and the model is not transferable to the countries of the South, where low yields leave a great margin for improvement. The use of chemical and phytosanitary products in the North entails serious pollution, and "their price will necessarily rise in the next thirty to forty years as a result of the increase in oil prices," notes Michel Griffon. "We are moving towards agriculture with a high energy cost that uses little fertilizer and that must economize on water usage."
What new technical approach can be envisaged? Are GMOs - studied and grown in India, China, Brazil and Argentina - a solution for the poorest countries? "That response is not commensurate with the level of the stakes," deems Mr. Griffon. "It's not impossible that they may be interesting, but there are rapid and much less onerous techniques for plant selection."
Agronomists believe we must use fewer machines and less chemical fertilizer and pesticides - which, moreover, poor peasants can rarely afford - to "invent an ecologically intensive agriculture that produces a better yield without degrading the ecosystems," elaborates Mr. Griffon.
"An appraisal piloted by the World Bank joining 800 international experts is presently underway and goes in that direction," adds Bernard Hubert, of the INRA (National Institute for Agronomic Research). This collective work, under the acronym IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development), should be published at the end of 2007.
This new model, called ecoagriculture, agroecology, or agroforestry, could double - without significant extra expense or resources - yields in the South, where the necessity is most urgent. It is based on ecosystems' regenerative capacity as a result of different plant associations, with successions of various crops through the years ... "In the Sahel, yields could be doubled by combining millet cultivation with acacia planting," illustrates Marc Dufumier of the INA (National Agronomic Institute).
However, these concrete paths to respond to the demographic and agricultural challenges include a number of unknowns. What will be the scope of bio-carburant production? Using ground to grow corn or sugar cane for energy uses could compete with food production. Already in Mexico, which is supplied by the United States, the price of corn tortillas has grown 14 percent in a year, as American crops are ever more dedicated to ethanol production. Another uncertainty is the scope of the coming climate change - to which, moreover, chemical agriculture contributes by emitting greenhouse gases with tractors, fertilizers, and transportation of food from one end of the planet to the other. "Serious surprises are conceivable," notes independent consultant Frédéric Dévé. "For example, Bangladesh could be flooded or soil degradation phenomena like the Dust Bowl in the United States in the 1920s could occur." Certainly, warming could improve agricultural production in Canada, Russia, and northern China. But Brazilian, African and Australian lands could see their fertility diminish.
Finally, if the "agroecology" route is a solution for feeding nine billion people, its implementation is dependent on political choices: "The problem that must be resolved between now and 2050 is income distribution. People can't feed themselves, because they're too poor," parses Mr. Dufumier, "What can be done to increase the peasantry's means?" Competition in global markets with highly subsidized agricultural products from Northern countries is blamed. "If we leave the world market open," Mr. Dufumier continues, "too-low prices will prevent poor peasants' survival. They will go in their hundreds of millions to the cities where there are not enough jobs."
"A billion people already live in slums," adds Mr. Dévé. "If this figure doubles, even triples, those people will have a difficult time accessing adequate nutrition. Problems of urban congestion and crimes will emerge." According to Mr. Griffon, a change in priorities is necessary: "The peasantry is presently considered residual, as though it has to be an anachronism in the new world. Agriculture must be made a public policy priority."