As the global population rises, farmers, particularly in developing countries, are coming underpressure to increase their crop yields to meet growing demand. D J Clark looks at the problemsfacing farmers and consumers in different parts of Asia, and examines some of the possiblesolutions.Naryana Reddy farms a 1.5 hectare plot of land just outside Kothapally, a village in centralIndia. He is typical of the millions of small-scale farmers across Asia who have increased foodproduction at a faster pace than the growth of their families. When Reddy inherited the land hehad to support just four people. Now there are seven in his family, but by using better watermanagement, fertilizers and insecticides he gets two harvests a year instead of one and hasmanaged to double his crop.
Over the past 40 years the global population has grown by 80 percent, but food production hasmore than kept pace, leaving every man, woman and child, on average, with more food thanthey ever had before, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization(FAO).
The FAO predicts population growth is slowing down and by 2050 should have almost reachedzero, but not before adding another 2.5 billion people to the global population, 60 percent ofwhom will live in Asia.
Much of the vast increases in food production came in the 1970s in what was known as the”green revolution”.
“If you look back through the annals of history you will see that science has made a veryimportant contribution to agriculture,” said Clive James, director of the International Service forthe Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
“People forget that Norman Borlaug, the architect of the ‘green revolution’ received the NobelPeace Prize for saving 1,000 million people from hunger by creating new seed variations andadvocating the use of fertilizers and pesticides to increase yields.”
The “green revolution” started well with crop yield increases far outstripping population rises,but at some point in the 1980s crop yield growth rates started to fall and in 1990 the foodproduction growth rate dropped below the population growth rate.
There are other factors at play that are also reducing farmers’ ability to produce food: Climatechange is starting to have an impact on crop yields. The International Food Policy ResearchInstitute ran a series of scenarios on climate change. All of them led to lower crop yields by2050.
“With climate change comes the problem of water scarcity and higher temperatures,” saidWilliam Dar, director of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.
“Today models are already indicating decreases in crop yields and we need to find ways tobring that productivity back up in order to feed 9 billion people by 2050.”
Growing demand for meat is also putting pressure on the world’s water resources.
In the next 40 years the demand for meat will double, with every kilogram of meat using eighttimes the water that is needed to produce 1 kg of wheat.
As populations rise and farmland becomes increasingly scarce, more rural poor are moving tocities to find food and jobs.
In cities, where there are no shortages, the big problem confronting the poor is that food is tooexpensive.
Mohammed Mohasin lives in a slum on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
Finding it almost impossible to make ends meet in the countryside, Mohasin moved to thesprawling city of 7 million in search of a better life.
Compared to many Bangladeshis, this father of two has done relatively well, as he has a stablejob.
But in spite of this, his ability to feed himself and his family is out of his control.
Standing in the small gap between his tin-roofed home and an encroaching open sewer, heexplains why he is skipping his lunch.
“When food prices go up I first have to reduce our expenditure, try to search for cheaper foodsand reduce our eating from three to two meals a day.”
Like many of the urban poor across Asia, Mohasin spends almost 90 percent of his income onfood and rent, leaving him little flexibility if food prices soar as they did in 2008.
The World Bank estimated that an extra 100 million people went hungry around the world inthat year due to food price increases.
Most analysts predict that food prices will more than double again over the next two decades.
Whereas the rural poor have opportunities to collect food from other sources such as openground, forests and rivers, those that live in cities are dependent on global market fluctuations.
Professor Cai Jianming from the Chinese Academy of Sciences is a world leader in developingurban farmland, ensuring that Chinese cities have the means to meet all of their vegetableneeds within their municipal boundaries.
“In southern China we can use rooftop spaces, but in the north it is easier to create spacesaround built-up areas where the distance food has to travel to markets is relatively short.Vertical gardens, using domestic balconies to grow edible food, are also gaining popularity inBeijing,” Cai said.
Historians often point to the fact that most famines are not caused by a lack of food but badgovernance.
In 1996 the FAO estimated that the world was producing enough food to provide everyone with2,700 calories a day, 500 more than is needed by the average human.
But out of the world’s estimated 7 billion people, 1 billion are clinically obese while 1 billionremain malnourished.
Professor Paul Teng from the Center for Non-Traditional Security at Nanyang TechnicalUniversity in Singapore has been studying losses in the food production, distribution andconsumption systems and estimates that 50 percent is lost before it reaches our mouths.
“In other words, if we could just recover the losses we would have more than enough food,” hesaid.
In looking at how to address the potential food deficit, a recent report from British NGO Oxfamposed a simple question: Is the answer to our future food needs to produce more food, or is itto try and fix our broken food system?
Bas Bouman, head of crop and environmental sciences at the International Rice ResearchInstitute (IRRI) in the Philippines believes doubling rice yields in Asia over the next 40 years isnot an impossible task.
“If you look at current rice varieties that have been produced since the ‘green revolution’ era,their yield potential is 8-10 tons per hectare, but the average yield here in the Philippines is 3.7tons. In Thailand, a major rice exporter, the average yield is just 3.5 tons per hectare. In thesecountries there are tremendous opportunities to increase yields with better managementwithout taking into account new seed variations.”
A combination of better water management and engineered crops was the answer given bymany scientists, though biotech farming is not without its critics.
At the University of Philippines Los Banos, Professor of Crop Science Ted Mendozademonstrated how combining drip feed irrigation, water harvesting, intercropping and organicmanures can have equally impressive results without the need to spray insecticides orgenetically modify the seeds.
The Oxfam report suggests returning to traditional agricultural practices is “dangerouslyromantic” in the light of the looming crisis, but Mendoza refuses to accept the crisis exists.
He believes the scare is manufactured by the agribusiness industry, which he claims is the mainbeneficiary of commercial fertilizers, insecticides and seed variations that farmers areencouraged to buy to increase yields.
(China Daily 08/01/2011 page10)
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