Scale of food challenge the question

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The world shouldn’t expect another Green Revolution in its bid to feed nine billion by 2050, says a leading expert on agricultural productivity.

In fact, despite advances in genetics and crop protection products, the rate of increased productivity appears to have slowed dramatically in recent years, University of California agricultural economist Alex McCalla told the recent Breadbasket 2.0 conference.

Citing World Bank figures, McCalla said the annual increase in crop yields of wheat, maize, and rice in developing countries shot up by an average of 2.0 per cent in the ’70s and ’80s, slowed to 1.1 per cent from 1990 to 2007, and has since declined even more.

“As you can see, in some crops the productivity growth is now below one per cent a year, which is concerning because population growth is at or above one per cent,” said McCalla, noting the average population estimate for 2050 is actually 9.6 billion.

Governments will need to take a multi-faceted approach to make the best use of their agricultural resources, he said. For example, China will need to modernize and increase production of certain commodities such as cereals for human consumption while at the same time continuing to import livestock meal.

“They simply cannot do everything, so they’re going to make strategic choices,” McCalla said in a followup interview.

In Africa, there needs to be much more research, he said.

“One of the basic things that needs to be addressed is domestic agriculture research capacity — right now there’s almost none in Africa,” he said.

Biotechnology is likely to be a major part of the solution, he added.

“All of the people I’ve spoken to have told me the same thing — that when it comes to biotechnology we’ve barely scratched the surface of the potential it holds,” McCalla said.

There will also be many opportunities for a handful of key grain-exporting regions — Canada, the U.S., Australia/New Zealand, Latin America and the former Soviet Union.

“Everywhere else is a net importer of cereal grains,” McCalla said. “For Canada, growth in demand should be a good thing.”

The professor also told the 200 industry leaders at the conference that he is optimistic a food crisis will be averted.

“The question is: ‘How difficult is our food challenge?’” McCalla said. “Is it small and manageable? Large but manageable? Or is it a crisis? I would say it’s large, but hopefully manageable.”

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