Feeding the farmer | Country Guide
Should the world’s farmers really double food production by 2050? Media reports say it is true and many sources of exploitation seem to repeat it almost daily.
But not all experts agree. Dr. Mitch Hunter, director of research at the American Farmland Trust, analyzed the latest data and suggests that food demand is likely to grow somewhere between 20% and 60%.
This is still a lot, but it does not sound as difficult or refreshing as doubling world food production, especially when mixed with the kinds of yield increases we have seen in many crops since the turn of the millennium.
However, the other thing to say is that the 20 to 60 percent estimate represents a very wide range. Globally, this is billions of tons.
“It depends on how fast the world population and economy are growing and how fast people in developing countries are doing or not following Western diets that are very heavy on meat and dairy,” says Hunter.
Well, a lot was in the air even before the pandemic. “COVID-19 is slowing global economic growth and I think it is going to slow down food demand, which is tragic because in many cases it means that people are too poor to buy food,” says Hunter. “It will also mean that the emerging middle class in developing countries will be slower to move to a diet where, for example, they have steak on a regular basis.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to affect fertility rates and global population growth, although again, this is hard to call.
It is difficult to put an exact number in future food demand. There is no surprise in this. What is certain, however, is that regardless of the number, it will have major implications and not just for agriculture.
It will also create new questions and new twists on old ones. For example, increased food demand should be good in terms of exploitation, right?
Yes, maybe, says Hunter. “It creates the expectation that markets will explode, demand will be very high and we will need more and more product, which is a promising future for a farmer who always needs to have a market to sell to. “
The problem is, the narrative that says we need to double food production to feed so many more people on the planet will be pushed at all costs?
Says Hunter: “What we need to do is radically rethink the way we value agriculture and its products and motivate policies and markets so that farmers can prioritize sustainability and conservation. in parallel with production “.
Even more recently, global agriculture has struggled with oversupply and low prices. It seems that every commodity group is trying to find new ways to use their crop, whether it is a new feed or for human consumption or for fuel or industrial purposes.
“When we compare it to where we are headed, with more demand by 2050, we know we do not want to expand farmland, reduce forests and convert wetlands,” says Hunter. “Right now, farmers, in many cases, want to build healthier soil, protect water quality, promote wildlife and all the other environmental benefits that come from agriculture, but all the market incentives. is to maximize production and reduce costs. “This set of incentives does not recognize that land, water and other natural resources are finite and we need to think about them in the long run.”
Technology has been around for decades as the great global solution, but we may be forgetting a very important thing. Hunter argues that many of the best tools and knowledge already exist on the farm to enable food production to meet demand in a sustainable way.
“We know how to make a farm more sustainable, we know that farmers need to grow a different set of crops, have complex crop rotations, include perennial crops, disturb the soil as little as possible, add organic inputs such as manure, compost. and crop cover, keep the soil covered all year round. “The challenge is to create systems that reward them and allow them to do these things and have a profitable farm,” says Hunter. “There are leaders showing the way, individual farms that have found how to combine a system that uses this diversity and complexity to their advantage, and leverages green processes, but the market is still pushing for high volume and low cost.”
This focus on efficiency also does not help our food supply chain to be resilient to shocks and crises. As the COVID-19 pandemic has proven so clear, large central food processing systems are not always the best.
“There is a growing recognition that our food system is effective but not resilient, and having gone through a crisis, I hope people will be more motivated to think about resilience in the food system and that certainly means moving away from incredible integration back to one. a more distributed food processing model, ”says Hunter. “It also means building our soils to be resistant to fluctuating weather conditions and developing our cultivation systems so that they are resilient. Simplicity is good for efficiency but bad for resilience.”
Looking to the future
Hunter’s work on the American Farmland Trust (AFT) examines how we can learn from the past to make future food systems more resilient. In a recent report entitled Farms Under Threat: The State of the States, his team looked at how much agricultural land was converted to urban and low-density development between 2001 and 2016. Their next report will try to show how much more farmland will be threatened. by 2040 through growth due to population growth and climate change.
“All the challenges are getting harder as we have less farmland to work on,” he says. “We do not have the ability to capture carbon, we have to produce the same amount of food in less land, the carbon we have already built in the ground is often lost as this land is bulldozed and opened up. Therefore, smart development and protection of agricultural land are part of this overall strategy. “
For example, the study found that in California, farmland converted to growth emits between 58 and 70 times more greenhouse gas emissions.
At the same time, there may be other complex factors that few of us have begun to consider.
For example, the AFT is also aimed at women landowners and non-operating landowners who play a key role in agriculture but may not know how much power they have over production and conservation practices.
“These groups are growing in size of the land they own, so they have an important role to play in choosing who gets to cultivate their land and what the terms of their rents are,” says Hunter. “This is a great opportunity to align these incentives and say, ‘I would like to rent this land from you and give you a discount because I would like you to use crop covers or different crop rotations or build its health. The question is, who cares if the farmer is sustainable?
What if there are not so many mouths to feed?
In their book, Empty Planet, Leading International Social Researcher Darrell Bricker, and award-winning journalist John Ibbitson argue that populations in many countries are already declining and most others are heading in that direction, forcing the entire world population to start also to be reduced.
“Recent studies show that by 2024, China’s population will be shrinking and there will be fewer Chinese each year starting in about five years,” says Ibbitson. “What does this mean for the Chinese economy?” And what does it mean for food exports to China, when every year there are fewer mouths that need feeding? “
And it’s not just China. Canada exports to Europe, which is already losing population, and we have a free trade agreement with South Korea, where the fertility rate has dropped below 1.0. (A rate of 2.1 children per woman is required to maintain the population.)
“All of these big markets are near or below the replacement rate, many of them are on the brink of population decline and some of them are already shrinking,” says Ibbitson. “This must have an impact on Canadian exports, especially agricultural exports.”
Ibbitson also believes that an export-based economic model based on growing populations in developing countries may need to be reconsidered.
“These populations are not growing, they are stabilizing and they are going to decrease over time. In some cases, in 20 or 30 years, those markets will cease to exist, “says Ibbitson. “But it is not in the nature of industry to think 20 or 30 years on the road. it is difficult to make them think after the second trimester. So this is a phenomenon that can be hidden from us, like many other phenomena that have found us in the past. “