The capacity to increase land in agriculture is closely linked to available water supplies. At present, agriculture accounts for over 70 per cent of water use globally, but both the absolute amount of water available for agriculture and its share are expected to decline (to 40 per cent by 2050).Ignacio Pérez Domínguez, Economist and Policy Analyst at the OECD, considers the future for food production...
Ignacio Pérez Domínguez
As the global population continues to rise, the challenge of increasing farming productivity while maintaining sustainability is also growing. The OECD in conjunction with the FAO recently published the Agricultural Outlook 2012-2021, which states that in order to meet demands, agricultural production needs to increase by at least 60 per cent over the next 40 years. Assisting this growth is vital for the global community, but it must be done in a sustainable way.
The report highlights the fact that while there is growing demand for food, production has slowed significantly, which runs the risk of seeing food prices rise. It also shows that 25 per cent of agricultural land is degraded, and states that governments need to play a more significant role in encouraging better agronomic practices.
The Agricultural Outlook also states that there is a real need to develop research and development programmes nationally, as well as improving the amount of investment.
Ignacio Pérez Domínguez, Economist and Policy Analyst at the OECD, outlines that food production increases can be achieved without compromising sustainability.What is the current state of food production globally?
Overall, production gains in agriculture have kept pace with demand growth over time. Real agricultural commodity prices have declined on trend over history; even if there have been significant periods of real price increases, such as in the 1970s and recently since 2000. Relative to global per capita incomes, food prices remain low in a historical context.Why is it important to maintain sustainability while increasing productivity in farming?
Increased production has been attained by increases in resource use and factors of production – land, capital and variable inputs (such as fertiliser) – as well as by increases in the productivity of those inputs. In both instances, however, there is evidence suggesting that increasing resources and inputs and productivity will face challenges in the future.
In many countries, it may be difficult to further exploit the resource base on a sustainable basis. While productivity growth may be slowing in some regions of the world, the potential to increase productivity appears substantial, if not by pushing out productivity frontiers, by helping close productivity gaps where they are large.What role does science play in food security?
Agricultural practices can strengthen productivity while using specific scarce resources in a more efficient manner in both developed and developing countries and improving the resilience of these systems to different shocks (e.g. due to price volatility or extreme weather events). To achieve better food access it is necessary to link productivity growth to the environmental characteristics of a special region (sustainability pillar) and the underlying agronomic and economic conditions (resilience pillar). Therefore, the specific approach chosen varies by agro-ecology, farming system and market conditions but will consistently involve increasing the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources in agricultural production systems, as well as the reduction of waste and pollution associated with inefficient input use and degraded ecosystems.
Sustainable intensification of production will require widespread adoption of sustainable land management practices where science plays a very important role: more efficient use of water (especially for irrigation), better plant nutrient management, increased control of disease and pests through modern crop protection (herbicides, pesticides, integrated pest management systems) and the harnessing plant breeding and biotechnology. Achieving sustainable agricultural productivity growth will largely depend on farmers’ ability to adopt the latest technologies.Do you think there is a need for more research collaboration on a national and international level?
With respect to agricultural innovation systems, the focus is on improving institutional design, the regulatory environment for innovation systems, and the relevance of R&D and innovation for the farming community. Most developing countries do not yet have an innovation policy. Specific areas that could be addressed include the need for better policy coherence for agricultural innovation, for more demand-driven research system, for rejuvenated agricultural education and training programmes, and for greater private sector engagement.
Agricultural Innovation Systems (AIS) are supply-driven models for innovation. Basically, scientists in the public sector create new technologies that are then disseminated by extension officers to the farmers who are asked to adopt them. Strengthening AIS requires effective coordination to bring together the interests and skills of the many different stakeholders in the innovation process. Enhanced public private partnerships would be a benefit in all these areas. However, the private sector will tend to focus on high value and market-oriented production systems. While the private sector is increasingly engaged in resource management and maintaining ecosystems, the provision of such public goods is primarily a responsibility of governments.How can food security be achieved in the future?
Given commodity prices, technology and competing demands, the feasible scope for area expansion is limited. FAO predicts that from the 2005/07 base period to 2050 only 10 per cent of the global growth in crop production (21 per cent in developing countries) is expected to come from land expansion, with the remainder coming from higher yields and increased cropping intensity.
The capacity to increase land in agriculture is closely linked to available water supplies. At present, agriculture accounts for over 70 per cent of water use globally, but both the absolute amount of water available for agriculture and its share are expected to decline (to 40 per cent by 2050).
Nitrogen surpluses are projected to decrease in most OECD countries by 2050 due to the efficiency of fertiliser use improving more rapidly than productivity increases. Nevertheless, there is still work to do. For instance, in China, India and most developing countries, the trend goes in the opposite direction: nitrogen surplus per hectare is likely to increase as production grows more rapidly than efficiency.
Food security can be seen from many angles. Food access can be certainly improved by increasing productivity growth, which will depend on protecting the resource base, investments in research and development, and on the industry’s ability to adopt the latest technologies. The effects of productivity growth on lowering food prices have major implications in reducing food insecurity for poor households. In addition, sustainability is essential, to ensure that productivity growth has no negative effects on environment and that it can be maintained over time in the face of depleting non-renewable resources.This piece will be published as part of a special focus on food security alongside articles from Defra and the University of Reading’s Centre for Food security in the seventh issue of Public Service Review: UK Science and Technology.