May 20, 2014

Commentary - Which Agricultural Technologies Will Safeguard Our Food Supply?


By Howard Mingh, Farming First spokesperson and President/CEO of CropLife International. This post is part of a series produced by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its fifth Global Food Security Symposium 2014 in Washington, D.C., which will be held on May 22.

The future is, by definition, uncertain. But when it comes to climate change, scientific research has warned us what to expect. While the recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warns that the worst effects of climate change are yet to come, we already have many technologies available to face them and protect our future food supply.

Agricultural technologies, such as plant biotech and crop protection products, help farmers manage the stress of changing weather conditions. Many of these products have long been in our arsenal to protect our food supply in the face of drought, extreme heat, and pressures from pests and diseases.  And new innovations will add effective options to the toolbox.

The difficulty, however, has been determining which agricultural technologies will be the most effective, the most sustainable, and where in the world they yield the best results, as not all technologies are suitable for all regions of the world.

 A ground breaking new study and online tool from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has answered these questions.

 By dividing the world’s arable land into a grid of 60 kilometre by 60 kilometre cells, IFPRI has mapped how 11 different agricultural innovations will likely affect maize, wheat and rice yields by 2050 under climate change conditions. By linking this yield assessment with a global economic model, the study also determines the impact these technologies will have on food prices, trade and food security.

 The 11 agricultural technologies are ones that farmers can access today: crop protection, drip irrigation, drought tolerance, heat tolerance, integrated soil fertility management, no-till farming, nutrient use efficiency, organic agriculture, precision agriculture, sprinkler irrigation, and water harvesting.  For many of these technologies, innovative research and development is being done to produce even more significant impacts and benefits in the future. 

Boosting yields, reducing hunger

The results of the study are incredibly promising. The book finds that the number of food-insecure people in developing countries in 2050 could be reduced by 9 percent if no-till agriculture (which disturbs the soil as little as possible to retain nutrients and water) is adopted more aggressively. Widespread adoption of heat tolerant crops that can yield well in high temperatures could reduce food insecurity by 8 percent. The successful development and adoption of nitrogen-use efficiency technologies, which enable plants to respond better to fertilizers, could reduce the number of food-insecure people in the developing world by an impressive 12 percent.

IFPRI also concludes that the use of no-till farming on a global scale can increase biophysical maize and wheat yields by about 30 percent, with small variations depending on climate change scenario. On a regional scale, it could increase maize yields in Sub-Saharan Africa by more than 30 percent in rain-fed environments and more than 100 percent in irrigated environments.

On a global scale, biophysical yield impacts for crop protection products for disease, insects and weeds are close to 10 percent each (about 25 percent in combination) across the three crops; and will constitute an important tool to address likely growing pest pressures under both intensification and climate change.

Irrigation water savings on fields under drip irrigation are 24 to 27 percent, depending on crop and climate change scenario, much higher than water savings for sprinkler irrigation systems, calculated at 11 to 12 percent.

Finding the right mix, in the right place

It is crucial to remember that different technologies will yield different results in different regions of the world. To help policymakers make use of this model, and see which technologies are best for their own countries, IFPRI has developed an online tool to let policymakers and agricultural experts utilize the data and see how the technologies impact productivity and food security at a local level. 

For example, when the impact of drought tolerance is tested globally, it seems to have a low impact, as drought only affects some regions in some seasons and some years. Yet at the right time in the right region, impacts can be significant. Detailed drought yield assessment in the United States and China, two of the world’s largest maize producers, shows yield benefits of up to 13 percent for this technology and crop.

Finally, combining these technologies (also known as “stacking”) could yield the greatest impact yet. Adopting the three types of crop protection (weed, disease and insects) together could reduce the number of food-insecure people by close to 9 percent.

If all technologies with positive yield impacts were adopted together for these three crops, prices of maize, wheat and rice could be reduced by 49 percent, 45 percent and 43 percent, respectively, compared to baseline 2050 projections. This is equivalent to reducing the number of people at risk of hunger by 40 percent.

This study is the first of its kind to equip decision makers to safeguard our food supply in the face of a changing world.

Find out more by visiting: www.ifpri.org/publication/food-security-world-natural-resource-scarcity

About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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