Experts on the topic of agriculture and hunger from around the world gathered in Des Moines last week for the 2014 version of the annual World Food Prize "Borlaug Dialogue" symposium. This year's theme: Can the world sustainably feed its projected population of 9 billion people by the year 2050?
The reports the experts gave show the world faces big challenges to reach that goal. Global agricultural productivity is not accelerating fast enough to meet the expected demand. Unless that changes, the adverse impact will be felt around the globe. Food shortages will drive prices higher in the developing nations and also in Iowa grocery stores. In famine-ravaged nations, the risk of instability and war will increase.
Our greatest human challenge—food security
This year's symposium theme of "Can we meet the challenge?" was chosen by World Food Prize Foundation officials to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of Norman Borlaug, founder of the prize. Born and raised on a farm near Cresco in northeast Iowa, Borlaug achieved success as an agronomist, plant scientist and wheat breeder and is known as the "Father of the Green Revolution."
His hunger-fighting efforts and those of other people working with him saved the lives of millions of people by developing new, improved wheat varieties, boosting food production in the world's poorest nations. They staved off mass starvation. Borlaug, who died in 2009, said what he did was "Buy the next generation some time, about 40 years. Now in the next 40 years you younger people will have to accomplish the next steps to alleviate world hunger and avoid starvation."
Global ag productivity not growing fast enough
Despite more of the world's land now being devoted to crops, yield growth is stagnating, says Ken Cassman, a University of Nebraska professor and head of UNL's Agronomy Department. He said in his presentation that expanding agriculture by cutting down more trees and farming more fragile land will only cause environmental damage.
Unknown "game changers" also lurk, such as how will climate change affect agriculture and how will the world respond to the demand to feed a growing middle class in China and other developing countries.
Experts who spoke at the WFP forums last week in Des Moines offered many solutions. Most started with farmers, and particularly emphasized the need for helping the millions of small farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
"The answer is simple. Invest in rural people, invest in smallholder producers," said Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. He praised Chinese farmers for producing 20% of the world's food on less than 10% of its land. In recent years, China has devoted resources to boost production on its millions of small farms, a strategy that has resulted in double-digit reductions in poverty and hunger in rural China.
Yield gaps are greatest on the world's small farms
"In Asia, rice growers have been able to not only feed their families but also produce a surplus," said Tim Wise, director of research for the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. Yield gaps (the difference between the land's potential and its actual productivity) are greatest on small farms, he added.
That's a reason for giving small farms more public investment. "The hungry are there and gains in yields can be found there. Resources small farmers need in the poorest nations are basic, such as access to credit and access to good roads and markets."
The Global Harvest Initiative proposes the data revolution be brought to small farmers. For example, iPads and wireless networks could provide in-the-field information to farmers in India to help them decide how much fertilizer to apply or what seed to buy.
Small farmers have greater access to cell phones than seed
Cell phones and other technology could provide a leap forward for small farmers in Africa, said Strive Masiyiwa. He's chairman of the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa and founder and chair of the global telecommunications group Econet Wireless. African farmers have greater access to cell phones than seed, he says.
Masiyiwa is working to bring Borlaug's agricultural evolution to Africa. He says such a revolution today must include women, who make up 70% of Africa's farmers. Many husbands have day labor jobs. It's the women who decide which seeds to plant on the one to two acres they farm. "If women had the resources and capital, the productivity on those farms would be greatly higher."
China is an important question mark for food security
The speakers pointed out how China is rising as a superpower and is modernizing its agriculture. This month the International Monetary Fund said China's economy is now bigger than the U.S. economy in terms of purchasing power.
China's demand for food creates key questions regarding food security. How much will China rely on the rest of the world to fill China's huge demand for food? Will China buy or rent large amounts of land in Africa and other places to increase China's food production? What if there are droughts or floods? One thing for sure, whatever China needs, the price of that commodity or product will rise all over the globe.
Another thing to watch is biofuel development globally
Another factor, said Wise, is biofuels development. All around the world more land is being used for biofuel production. That will divert cereal grains from food production and create more volatility in food prices. The world will be watching as to whether the Chinese government requires more of its energy coming from biofuels in future years.
This year's winner of the $250,000 World Food Prize was honored in a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol the evening of October 16. He is Sanjaya Rajaram, the first wheat scientist honored by the World Food Prize. Rajaram was Borlaug's successor at CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico. The two men worked side by side. Borlaug chose Rajaram to take over the wheat breeding and research at CIMMYT as Borlaug moved on to work in other parts of the world.
New WFP Laureate praises "innovative spirit of farmers"
Growing up surrounded by poverty in India, Rajaram became a wheat breeder and researcher, with the goal of helping feed hungry people. Last week at the WFP ceremony dozens of world leaders honored him for his groundbreaking work in bringing higher yielding wheat—and bread—to the world's hungry. In his acceptance speech at the Iowa Capitol, Rajaram downplayed the praise given him, saying his work represented the efforts of many. "It is a collective achievement, rather than that of a single person," he said, adding that the World Food Prize "honors the innovative spirit of farmers. Without their contributions, my research wouldn't have been possible."
Rajaram crossed spring wheat with winter wheat and revolutionized wheat production. The 71-year-old World Food Prize Laureate developed 480 "high yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties" that have been grown on 58 million hectares in 51 different countries. His work increased the total annual global wheat production by 200 million tons. In 2007, Borlaug said Rajaram was "the greatest present-day wheat scientist in the world" and a "scientist of great vision."
Unless it's controlled, Ebola outbreak will impact agriculture
While leaders at the WFP symposium last week discussed whether the world can sustainably feed a global population that's expected to grow 30%, to 9.6 billion people, by 2050, the health epidemic ravaging the West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea dominated much of the discussion at the conference.
Ebola, a virus has taken nearly 4,500 lives in the three countries recently and the virus has shown up in a few instances in Europe and the U.S. in recent weeks. It is affecting agriculture in areas of the three countries in West Africa where it has shown up. Ebola has killed many people who were working on the farms and has completely wiped out some small farming communities. Political instability and fighting in the Middle East, and threats by terrorist groups such as ISIS, was discussed. Hungry people are not a peaceful people, another reason to carry on in the effort to defeat world hunger.
Rajaram won the 2014 World Food Prize for his free exchanging of crop/plant information and innovation, making the improved wheat genetics more readily accessible to small farmers, to get them to plant the crop.
2014 WFP Laureate supports planting and use of GMO crops
Because of Rajaram's work, wheat is now even more accessible to small-holder farmers and the poor, said World Food Foundation president Kenneth Quinn. Answering questions from reporters, Rajaram said he wholeheartedly supports the growing of genetically modified crops. "I'm very pro-GMO crops. I see a tremendous yield stability that genetic modification can bring to various crops."
"But," he added, "caution is still needed in their adoption. They have to be handled carefully and prudently. For example, what are the effects on the environment? We need to study these things very carefully. Like any new technology, we have to be very cautious in promoting it." Even so, he still thinks GMO crops could be the best solution to meeting growing climate change challenges—extreme heat, drought and cold—while providing food for a growing world population.
Rajaram said his childhood wasn't easy in rural India, where 96% of the people lacked basic education. "I was part of the 4%," he said. "My parents made many sacrifices to send me to school." That is what motivated him to become a crop scientist and help the lives of other small-holder farmers. It also motivated him to contribute part of his $250,000 World Food Prize award to help educate young Indians. "Inspiring the next generation of scientists was very important to Norman Borlaug," noted Rajaram.
For information about this year's World Food Prize winner and presentations made at the symposium in Des Moines, visit the World Food Prize website.