The World Food Prize Foundation

Pinstrup Andersen: Sustainability

Insert picture hereA Note on the Action Needed to Assure Sustainable Food Supplies 
Anniversary Essay by 2001 World Food Prize Laureate Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen

Foresight by a small group of individuals in important positions brought about the most successful development initiative the world has ever seen. 

An international agricultural research effort combined with expanded use of agricultural inputs and facilitating government policies, popularly known as the Green Revolution, turned impending mass starvation in Asia and elsewhere into rapidly increasing agricultural productivity, reduced rural poverty and hunger, and greater purchasing power among consumers.

Recent increases and fluctuations in international food prices have drawn attention to the global food situation. Questions are raised about the ability of the world to feed future generations without doing damage to natural resources. 

Although the population growth rate is on a decreasing trend, the world population will increase by more than two billion over the next 40 years and by another billion by the time year 2100 comes around. Desires for dietary diversity in low-income developing countries will expand the demand for foods of animal origin. Current estimates are that the demand for food and feed will increase by 70 percent by 2050. About a billion people cannot afford to obtain the food they need to meet energy requirements. Many more suffer from nutrient deficiencies. 

There is little doubt that the increase in food demand can be met by an equal increase in supply. The earth’s productive capacity is far from fully utilized. Plenty of underutilized productive capacity exists in Brazil, Ukraine, Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, including the United States. The gaps between actual and potential yields are large, and continued public and private investment in productivity-increasing research and technology can elevate food production per unit of land and water almost everywhere. 

Cutting food waste and losses, which are estimated to be about one-third of the food produced, offers another opportunity to meet future food demand. Investments in rural infrastructure and domestic markets are critically important in many developing countries. 

The key question is whether appropriate investments and policies will be made to exploit the capacity to produce the food needed in a sustainable manner. Investments in agricultural research and technology that reduce unit-costs of production, processing and marketing without doing damage to natural resources are particularly important. Such investments need to be made with considerable foresight because of the long time lag between research and the availability of the technology to the farmer.  The tremendous future potential of genetically modified (GM) seed is illustrated by the successes to date. Recent estimates found that the use of GM seed reduced the acreage needed to produce the 2009 maize, soybean and cotton crops by about 30 million acres, while reducing insecticide use and increasing farm incomes. It is estimated that the adoption of GM seed increased the incomes of the world’s farmers by $65 billion during the period 1996-2009.

Sustainable intensification, i.e., increasing productivity per unit of land and water while maintaining the productivity of natural resources for future generations, is the key to meeting future food demands. Agro-ecological approaches and ecosystem management combined with productivity-increasing technology deserve more attention. Unfortunately, the very narrow definition of organic production methods that exists in the United States and the European Union makes such methods less attractive as a major player in efforts to assure sufficient food for future generations because of relatively low yields, higher costs, risks of soil mining and in some cases higher levels of greenhouse gas emission.

Failure to pursue sustainable management of natural resources and policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change undermines the production foundation for agriculture and makes it increasing difficult to meet future food needs. Smallholder farm families in developing countries, many of whom are at risk of malnutrition, are particularly vulnerable but unsustainable food production is a world-wide problem. Excessive and inappropriate use of water contributes to draw-down of ground-water levels and reduced availability of surface water in an increasing number of locations. Appropriate incentives to farmers to treat water as a scarce resource, such as water pricing or rationing, may increase water use efficiency. Soil degradation is widespread. Wind and water erosion and reduced soil fertility are common in many places. Nutrient mining of soils is a particularly important problem in parts of Africa.

A full costing approach, in which the costs associated with unsustainable use of natural resources and negative contributions to climate change are fully added to production costs, is warranted to protect the future productive capacity and reduce the risks of food shortages and income shortfalls among farmers . In some cases, full costing will increase food prices but many opportunities exist for triple wins, i.e., achieving production and sustainability goals while keeping production costs and food prices at a reasonable level. A full costing approach would also reward farmers for action that would benefit the environment.

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