Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Big problems call for big solutions...

No sooner than the UN had issued a report of food demand in the future than one big effort appears to address the challenge.
World food production must rise by 50 percent by 2030 to meet increasing demand, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon told world leaders Tuesday at a summit grappling with hunger and civil unrest caused by food price hikes.

The secretary-general told the Rome gathering that nations must minimize export restrictions and import tariffs during the food price crisis and quickly resolve world trade talks. [More]
Although I dispute the higher population forecasts being bandied about by environmentalists and demographers, the recent upsurge in food demand certainly points out even without more people, we need more food.

At the same time, I am optimistic that we have only begun to apply technology to this need. (Sounds like an engineer, doesn't it?) Now we have strong incentives via millions of newly economically empowered consumers, we could be poised for sharp jump in the productivity curves. And not coincidentally, agriculture's "toolmakers" are one step ahead.
Monsanto, the leader in agricultural biotechnology, pledged Wednesday to develop seeds that would double the yields of corn, soybeans and cotton by 2030 and would require 30 percent

The announcement, coming as world leaders are meeting in Rome to discuss rising food prices and growing food shortages, appears to be aimed at least in part at winning acceptance of genetically modified crops by showing that they can play a major role in feeding the world.

Much of what is in the commitment are things the company was doing anyway, though it now becomes a formal goal.

Monsanto said it had developed its new commitment after consulting farmers, political leaders, academics and advocacy groups as to what needed to be done to increase food production to cope with a rising population and the demand for biofuels without converting more forests into farmland.

“In short, the world needs to produce more while conserving more,” the company’s chief executive, Hugh Grant, said in a statement. [More]
When I first read the goals I imagined corn at 400 bu. and beans at 120, etc. But if you dig down into the later paragraphs, the idea is to double global yields to about 220 for corn, for example. To be sure, there will no doubt be some guys growing 400-bushel corn and making life miserable for the rest of us, but the way to raise global yields is to lift the lowest producers to moderate yields.

Norman Borlaug pointed this out over a decade ago.
Yields can still be increased by 50-100% in much of the Indian sub-Continent, Latin America, the former USSR and Eastern Europe, and by 100-200% in much of sub-Saharan Africa, providing political stability is maintained, bureaucracies that destroys entrepreneurial initiative are reigned in, and their researchers and extension workers devote more energy to putting science and technology to work at the farm level.

Yield gains in China and industrialized North America and Western Europe will be much harder to achieve, since they are already at very high levels. Still, I am hopeful that scientific breakthroughs - particularly from genetic engineering, will permit another 50% increase in yields over the next 35 years.

The most frightening prospect of food insecurity is found in sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of chronically undernourished could rise to several hundred million people if current trends of declining per capita production are not reversed. Sub-Saharan Africa’s increasing population pressures and extreme poverty; the presence of many human diseases, e.g., malaria, tuberculosis, river blindness, trypanosomiasis, guinea worm, AIDS, etc.; poor soils and uncertain rainfall; changing ownership patterns for land and cattle, inadequacies of education and public health systems, poorly developed physical infrastructure, weaknesses in research and technology delivery systems will all make the task of agricultural development very difficult. [More via MR]

I think this will be done best by example, patience and farmer-to-farmer conversation rather than regulation and courts. Here in the US we have an obligation to lead, not herd others to better solutions.

However, one big holdup will be allowing our farm program to continue to frustrate global trade improvement. Trade in badly needed biotechnology for poorer producers could be hamstrung for the sake of my $25 DCP. More specifically, the new ACRE program definitely looks like a target for WTO opponents.
Trade implications. But since the ACRE program is based on planted and considered planted acres and an average of actual prices and yields, Conner lamented, "The implications are dramatic and are as great as anything we've ever done relative to trade implications. Like I said, I've lost sleep over this."

Given those program parameters, the ACRE payments would almost certainly end up in the amber box relative to U.S. WTO commitments, Conner said. [More]
The effort outlined by Monsanto is commendable and pretty dang ambitious, IMHO. Still it is refreshing to see a member of our industry looking at the future and aiming high rather than concentrating on what could go wrong.

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