Business & Policy
From the Field Editor: December 2011
By Bruce Barker
Sometime, somewhere on planet Earth, the world’s seven billionth baby was born on Oct. 31, 2011 – and we keep growing.
Sometime, somewhere on planet Earth, the world’s seven billionth baby was born on Oct. 31, 2011 – and we keep growing. This exponential growth provides both opportunity and challenges for Western Canadian agriculture: opportunity in the form of higher commodity prices and the possibility of a long-term trend of higher, stable prices, and challenges from the impact of higher, more volatile food prices on the world’s economy and security.
The world’s agriculture production, Canada’s breadbasket included, has been relatively successful in feeding the world’s growing population to this point. Productivity is at an all-time high due to advances in genetics, crop protection and the evolution of sustainable practices. But the harsh reality is that in this era of plenty, 925 million people are undernourished, many of them children living in Africa and South Asia.
The age-old argument I once subscribed to was that there isn’t a food shortage crisis – just pay farmers more for their crops and they will produce more to feed the growing world. Clean up the world’s political problems in Third World countries that disrupt food distribution and there will be plenty to go around. That logic may have rung true in the past, but it rings hollow now.
The Green Revolution launched by Dr. Norman Borlaug in the 1960s helped food supply meet and exceed demand in many countries despite the world’s population doubling between 1960 and 2000. Cereal prices were stable from month to month, and even trended downwards over that period.
That changed in the last decade. Our burgeoning population has agricultural production struggling to keep up with demand. Commodity prices have become volatile, hurting farmers and consumers alike. It took until the 1900s to reach one billion people, and the population has doubled in the last 50 years. The last billion people were added since 1999 – almost equivalent to adding another country such as India to the planet, but without the additional land base.
Much of the population growth is in Third World and developing areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where international investment has lagged, and agricultural production remains stagnant. According to World Watch, inefficient agriculture in the world’s poorest regions has left hundreds of millions of people in poverty. In these areas, agriculture provides jobs for 1.3 billion small farmers and is the main source of livelihood for an estimated 86 percent of the three billion rural people in developing countries. Our future and theirs are intrinsically linked.
Despite the ongoing investment in research and development in First World agriculture – and there is no doubt that more is needed – it is unlikely that production in developed countries will be able to keep up with the world’s growing population. Given current trends, our population could hit 10 billion by the year 2100.
So although Prairie farmers will continue to play an important role in feeding the world, and will hopefully prosper from growing food demand, there is a growing recognition that agricultural investment must also be increased in developing countries as well. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that a net investment of US$83 billion must be made in infrastructure, marketing systems, extension, communication services, education, and R&D – to increase food supply and improve the function of local agriculture markets. This investment would help reduce price volatility and help millions around the world escape poverty.
There have been success stories. In Philippines, the government is seeking to be self-sufficient in rice by 2013 through investments in an intensified production program that is increasing yield by 15 percent. In Niger, a new financing system allowed farmers to buy essential inputs, which increased yield by 44 to 120 percent and income by 19 to 113 percent in six months. These examples are some of the many initiatives aimed at small farmers in developing countries.
Should Western Canadian farmers be threatened by the push to improve world agricultural production? With two babies born every second, the threat doesn’t come from producing too much food, but from not producing enough.