Steve Wiggins at the High Level Expert Forum on ‘How to Feed the World in 2050’

The discussions covered the following questions –

Can the world be fed in 2050?

Quantitative models suggest it can, even if this will probably mean raising agricultural output by 70% and growing another 1 billion tonnes of grain. Most of this will have to come from higher yields, through using more inputs; although it is hoped that water and fertiliser can be used more economically and effectively in the future.

Yet there are multiple uncertainties. Energy prices are a key unknown. If oil prices rise, then this could drive up demand for biofuels imposing substantial additional demands on world farming.

Climate change was mentioned in every session, but was not addressed systematically or fully. It seemed that speakers assumed that enough would be done to hold warming to 2 degrees so that adaptation could handle the resulting increasingly variable weather and altered patterns of rainfall. Even then a lone voice argued that too little attention has been paid to future needs to adapt crops to new weather patterns. Gene banks are vulnerable and incomplete: for example, of 61 wild species of cow peas only 21 are represented in gene banks.

Can we expect to see more price spikes in agricultural markets? For some this was inevitable, given the many sources of volatility and in some cases their likely increased potency. On the other hand, came the rejoinder, it is improbable that the half dozen factors that led to the 2007/08 spike would be repeated often if at all. Market integration has its dangers, but on balance is a force for stability.

For some, there are dangerous lacuna in international co-operation. Lacking this, there were gloomy forecasts of resource scrambles for land, water, phosphates — to say nothing of energy — that could easily lead to war. And if not outright warfare, in the absence of global policies to deal with energy and climate change, then farmers and everyone else associated with the sector may find themselves reacting to strong forces that are difficult to anticipate.

Can hunger and malnutrition be eliminated?

Hunger, almost everyone agreed, is only partly a matter of food production: most of the story is about poverty and distribution. That said, there were strong views that agriculture remains, in agrarian societies, an important qualification, the most effective way to get the rural poor out of poverty — partly through jobs on farms, through links to the rest of the rural economy, and through pushing down the price of food to the non-farming poor.

Nutrition was only occasionally mentioned in the meeting: when it was, the arguments were to the effect that more diversified diets with high quality foods were necessary to complement staples. The health environment — half the nutrition story — was ignored.

What has to be done to stimulate agricultural growth?

For most present, if the resources were made available and policies were moderately encouraging, then the challenges could be met. But there was considerable pessimism that governments and donors would deliver on the promises made in the last few years and especially in 2008 and 2009.
Clearly funding solves nothing if funds are not used well. Two concerns surfaced. One was lack of public capacity in many low income countries, the inheritance of the retreat of the state in the 1980s and 1990s. The other came somewhat unexpectedly from the keynote speaker, Alain de Janvry, one of the main authors of the World Development Report 2008. He argued that we lack knowledge of what to do, and how, in response to some or much of the agricultural development agenda. Experimentation and learning were thus needed. Ministries of agriculture had to adopt a territorial perspective and there had to be greater scope in decision making and implementation for producer organisations.

Alain de Janvry’s other main observation was on the extent of rural market failures that meant that many standard economic recommendations would not produce the results expected. Unfortunately he did not elaborate on this, and there was little further discussion of the point.

What technology will be needed?

Technology provoked the sharpest divisions of opinion, starting with views of the Asian green revolution that for some had rescued millions from hunger, and for others was deeply flawed environmentally and socially. Familiar debates surfaced. For some of the scientists present, it was perverse not to invest in research using advanced biology in search of productivity-raising technology. From the other side came the reply that it was not lack of technology that prevented poor farmers getting better yields, but policies, contexts and structures. ‘Industrial farming’, moreover, caused environmental harm and contributed to climate change. Concentration of advanced technical know-how in the hands of the big battalions was likely to lead to the poor and marginalised groups losing access to their physical and genetic resources.

Transgenic species were as usual the main flashpoint. One (South) African farmer saw the denial of these to African farmers as ‘criminal’. But other African delegates pointed out the unknowns, and wondered why, if transgenics were so useful, Europe did not use them.

Several delegates — sceptical of the demands for advanced biology — were dismayed that the findings of the IAASTD, the product of four years of debate by hundreds of scientists, were not the starting point for the debate.

Small or large farms?

No similar controversy existed over small and large farms. Opinions ranged from the optimists who believe that smallholder development can be efficient, equitable and make major inroads on poverty; to those who accept some trade off of less efficiency on small farms against more equity; to those who see small farms as a socially necessary focus, but an increasing obstacle to efficiency that sooner rather than later need to give way to larger-scale, more capitalised and technified farms. No one, however, took this to the stage of arguing for land consolidation: any change in farm structures, it seemed, would be gradual as small farmers opted voluntarily for other livelihoods.

What of Africa?

The only region to merit a session of its own, some looked forward to the day when such special treatment would no longer be necessary. Afro-pessimism, however, is yielding to a qualified optimism about the future.

Economic conditions have improved. There are opportunities in rising Asian demand for produce, possibly in biofuels for some countries, in population growth and urbanisation. Above all, governance in its broadest dimensions is improving. A denser weave of private enterprise, civil society, local government, farmer organisations, facilitated in part by technologies such as cell phones and FM radio, offers hope of more accountability, innovations, and more agile response to challenges and opportunities. CAADP is picking up speed and is widely recognised as a framework and rallying point for country and regional initiatives.
Against this can be set the low base from which some countries start. Climate change casts a long shadow over agricultural prospects.

Technology, see above, attracts intense debate. While all recognise that Africa’s agricultural systems and crops are unusually diverse, for some this merely underlines the need to make the fullest use of advanced biology; while for others it suggest building gradually on local innovations and adding complex technologies such as soil and water management and the integration of trees with cropping, rather than looking to more straightforward advances in crop traits.

Finally, the need for Africa to more self-reliant in policies and funding was repeatedly stressed, given a widespread appreciation that donors were too capricious in funding and priorities.

… and the rest

Inevitably in a two day meeting some topics got little attention. Nutrition, as mentioned, was one. So was a discussion about other sectors and their interactions with farming, including the rural non-farm economy. Women farmers were mentioned frequently, but there was no systematic discussion of the implications of a gender-sensitive agricultural policy. At least two lively points of debate in African agricultural development — subsidies on inputs, and land deals — were barely mentioned.

The meeting summarised in a sentence? Yes, the world of nine billion in 2050 can be fed and hunger eliminated. But whether political will to do so can be mobilised is another matter: global and country leadership, backed by enhanced citizen participation to hold leaders to account, will be critical.

Steve Wiggins
14 October 2009


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