Stu Ellis: Can Agriculture Meet The Challenge?
Your challenge, or maybe it is the challenge of whoever succeeds you on your farm, is to produce food in sufficient quantities to feed three billion additional people 40 years from now. They will not be coming to your house for every holiday dinner like your in-laws, but they will be neighbors in our shrinking world who will live in metropolitan areas and not have the resources for food self sufficiency. Certainly yields are increasing, at least when the weather cooperates, but there are many who cast legitimate doubts on whether the challenge can be met. But why would anyone doubt that we could not feed 9 billion people with our current land resources. We’ll provide a “glimpse” into the future.
Glimpse is the acronym that Aiden Connolly and Kate Phillips-Connolly used to identify the roadblocks to productivity. They are Irish economists, and their perspective in the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review is labeled as a “wicked problem.” That is because time is running out and no one is stepping up to take charge and provide direction to the diverse food producers. While some observers blame agribusiness for being the problem, the economists see agribusiness as “an essential component to meeting the challenge.”
The researchers surveyed authorities who are close to the challenge and report, “One of the few points of consensus among the many researchers and organizations attempting to find solutions, is that the private sector will be a critical part of finding ways to get more food to more people more sustainably. Agribusiness leaders are recognizing both the moral and practical dimensions of their role.” Those authorities who provided their insight include producers, agribusiness firms, policy makers, consultants, researchers, and academics, and were asked, “What are the biggest barriers facing agribusinesses ability to feeding three billion more people?” Their collective response compiles the words identified by the acronym “glimpse.”
Government bureaucracy, policies and regulations contribute substantially to the challenge of feeding the 9 billion. They contend the rules, fees, and costs of establishing and operating a business act as barriers to growth, such as the 119 days it takes to start a business in Brazil, compared to 2 days in Australia. Another part of the problem with government is corruption and the requisite bribes to engage in business.
Loss and waste of food occur up and down the line from production to consumption. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates one-third of food produced in the world is lost or wasted, however volumes are much higher in developed societies than in the developing world where food is more scarce and higher priced.
Infrastructure is the conveyance of food from producer to consumer, which may run fast or slow, which may contribute to spoilage, and which deals with as many ingredients as it does fully prepared food products. Large agribusiness can control its own infrastructure, but smaller private-public investment will have that as a burden.
Markets can manage the challenge, but that is a complex solution and governments may get involved. Where there are food shortages there are fragmented markets and dependence upon middlemen which make it difficult for agribusiness to operate. “More transparency by agribusinesses about both the risks and the benefits from innovative (market) approaches may help ameliorate some of these factors.”
Policies of government may support waste of resources or destroy the environment, such as the example the economists provide of fertile land in Russia and Argentine that remains fallow, yet cropping is subsidized heavily in other regions where crops otherwise would not be produced. In that, they take a rather dim view of biofuel programs.
Science and innovation may help create higher yields and more food, but it runs headlong into societal concerns, such as genetically modified organisms. While science has created the opportunity to convert corn to fuel, it has created a backlash. But Norman Borlaug faced the same skepticism and he said, “Far more often than not, this philosophy has worked, in spite of constant pessimism and scare-mongering by critics.”
Environmental resources, such as land and water are in short supply, and more is needed to produce a unit of food, or so it seems. However, greater productivity can be replaced by contributions of agribusiness.
The Connolly team suggests that efforts by agribusiness can overcome government bureaucracy and corruption, as well as shaping policy in constructive ways. However, they say there are no easy answers and sometimes barriers and opportunities are on both sides of the coin.
They conclude by saying, “According to a recent OECD-FAO presentation65 the 3 billion new people—mostly urban dwellers will require 1 billion tons of cereals and 200 million tons of meat. Building on the evidence that agricultural productivity has improved by 2.6% per annum over the past 10 years; they estimate that productivity will increase a further 1.7% per annum for the next 10. Compounded over the next 35 years, that will allow agribusinesses to generate the requisite 70% increase in food production.”
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