Food for Thought Mar05


The UN’s global demographic analysis predicts a 50% increase in world population from the present 6.5bn to 10bn by 2050. Most of this growth will be in poorer countries where urbanisation of rural populations and rising incomes lead to higher consumption of water, meat, vegetables, fruit, alcohol and fuel.


Water is essential for survival. Urbanisation and rising incomes in developing countries have hugely increased demand for clean drinking water, sanitation and irrigation. Other competing industries such as tourism and steel make more efficient use of water and pay higher prices than agriculture. Consequently, water levels are falling across many regions including China, Australia, India and North America – all important global food producers.  


Over the last 4 years, all grain stocks (including rice) in the world have fallen by 33% compared to the 2000/2001 level. Even with the bumper global harvest of 2004/2005, the USDA estimates global grain stocks level to have fallen by 5m tonnes. The World Bank’s forecast is that agricultural productivity will need to double in order to feed 10bn people by 2050. Increasing provision of non-food commodities will provide competition for agricultural land and inputs. Whilst the Amazon as been cleared for soyabean fields, many areas are becoming infertile from de-forestation, diminishing water levels, industrial pollution and poor environmental management. For example, the Northern Plains of China, once the Communist breadbasket, is now the fastest growing desert in the world. Rainforests and large areas of productive farmland in central and east Africa have been reduced to barren land where peasants and nomadic tribes can barely survive.


How can we increase global agricultural output by 50% over this time with less productive land, fewer agricultural workers, declining reserves of water and increasingly scarce reserves of oil and gas? How can we use advances in science and technology to increase yields of crops without risk to health or environment? How can we achieve bulk production and maintain quality and price that the poorer world citizens can afford? How can we produce affordable biofuels to conserve our environment?


Farmers in developing countries will need to secure higher yields for crops they consume or sell. Increased use of genetically modified (GM) seed, use of mechanical implements and irrigation schemes will require investment and technology transfer. GM technology dominates soya, sugar, maize, cotton production in North and South America. Although China is the world’s second largest grain producer, it cannot feed its 1bn citizens without massive imports. In China today, only GM cotton is commercially grown but it is spending more on GM research than the USA indicating that it would be ready to change to GM crops in future.


Carbohydrates in sugar beet, wheat and potatoes can be fermented to yield bioethanol that is used as a component in premium unleaded petrol. Rape seed oil, sunflower seed oil and waste cooking oil can be chemically esterified to yield biodegradable diesel.


With declining reserves of oil and gas in the North Sea, uncertainty of Middle Eastern supplies and the wildly fluctuating global oil price (from US$8 to US$56), the EU must aggressively promote production of biofuels, wind and solar energy. Currently, the EU produces only 15m hectoliters of biofuel against Brazil’s 75m and USA’s 120m hectoliters.Recent EU Directives for production of biofuels, especially from processing sugar beet, wheat and oil seed rape, set usage to be 5.75% (120m hectolitres) by 2010. The Directives enable Member States to grant reduced excise duties to substitute petrol or diesel with biofuels.


The EU needs to adopt a new agricultural plan that accepts the use of GM crops for biofuel and helps its own farmers to reduce EU subsidized production of sugar, tobacco, maize and cotton that seriously undermine export incomes of farmers in the developing countries. The EU must help these poor farmers to acquire better seed, irrigation and technology transfer to achieve higher yields of crops so that they can be self-sufficient in food and have enough income to continue to live in peace in their own countries!