Declining agricultural productivity and continued growing demand have brought the world food situation to a crossroads. Failure to act now through a wholesale reinvestment in agriculture—including research into improved technologies, infrastructure development, and training and education of agricultural scientists and trainers—could lead to a long-term crisis that makes the price spikes of 2008 seem a mere blip.
This stark warning, in line with calls from organizations such as the World Bank, the World Food Program, and Asian Development Bank (ADB), was issued by members of the Board of Trustees (BOT) of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) following their meeting on 16-19 September at Institute headquarters in Los Baños, Philippines.
The global community needs to remember two key things," said BOT Chair Elizabeth Woods. "First, that growth in agricultural productivity is the only way to ensure that people have access to enough affordable food. Second, that achieving this is a long-term effort. A year or two of extra funding for agricultural research is not enough. To ensure that improved technologies flow from the research and development pipeline, a sustained re-investment in agriculture is crucial."
Dr. Woods pointed out that the annual rice yield growth rate has dropped to less than 1% in recent years, compared with 2--3% during the Green Revolution period of 1967-90. Based on projected income and population growth, annual productivity growth of almost 1.5% will be needed at least until 2020.
The meeting coincided with the release of a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stating that higher food prices are partly to blame for the number of hungry people growing by 75 million to around 925 million worldwide—and further jeopardizing the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger and poverty by 2015.
Another report, released this week by the ADB, argued that, for Asian countries to prevent future food price surges, agriculture needs wide-scale structural reform. This report also warned that, with demand remaining higher than supply, any supply shock would further increase cereal prices.
An ADB report released in August increased the cut-off level for poverty from US$1 per day to $1.35 per day, meaning that millions more people are trapped in poverty than previously thought. Disturbingly, the new measure does not take into account the higher food and fuel prices of 2008, which, according to some estimates, have plunged a further 100 million people below the poverty line. Although the export price of rice has settled from more than $1,000 per ton in May to around $700 per ton, it is still double the price of one year ago.
The current crisis serves as a timely wakeup call for governments, multilateral organizations, and donors to refocus on agriculture. Various national and international bodies have called for a second Green Revolution to feed the world in the face of a growing population and shrinking land base for agricultural uses.
Unlike the first Green Revolution, in which productivity growth was achieved with the introduction of modern varieties in tandem with assured irrigation and inputs (such as fertilizer), and guaranteed prices, the second Green Revolution needs to achieve the same goal in the face of several 21st-century challenges. These challenges include water and land scarcity, environmental degradation, skyrocketing input prices, and globalized marketplaces, all within the context of global climate change.
In short, the second Green Revolution will have to expand productivity sustainably, with fewer resources.
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