October 17, 2014

Critical Factors to Meet the Greatest Challenge in Human History

By Margaret M. Zeigler, PhD is the Executive Director of Global Harvest Initiative

This week, close to two thousand leaders from across the United States and the globe came together in Des Moines, Iowa to debate, discuss, learn and forge solutions to feed the world. The World Food Prize 2014 Borlaug Dialogue, honoring Dr. Norman Borlaug who pioneered the green revolution agriculture technologies in wheat that helped feed millions of poor farmers in India and Pakistan in the 1960’s, centered upon the greatest challenge in human history. By 2050, there will be 9.6 billion people on the planet, most of whom will now be participating in middle class economies and eating more protein based diets. The world’s greatest challenge lies before us: how will we feed the world’s growing middle class by 2050, in the face of climate change, and with limited natural resources?

There is an urgent need for farmers to find new ways to adapt to volatile weather and climate change patterns that we face. Population and income growth are increasing the demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel. The emerging consensus by economists, scientists, political leaders, and farmers participating in the World Food Prize is simple: we must act now to produce food sustainably in the face of climate change. As the devastating drought in California and the southwest of the United States enters its third year, the message is being driven home—improving productivity and new methods and practices in agriculture, coupled with technological innovation and clear public policies will be the solutions to feed the world using less water and land, and conserving the resource base.

There are three critical pieces to in this productivity goal—maize, rice, and wheat, the “Big Three” staple crops that the world depends on. If the current trends are not altered, by 2050 climate change could decrease global maize yields by up to 18 percent, rice yields could drop by 7 percent, and wheat yields could decline by up to 36 percent.

So how can farmers in the US, and indeed the rest of the world, be supported to become more resilient to the changing climate and ensure we all have enough food on our tables?

Increasing the productivity of agriculture, while minimizing the impact on soil, water, and using less fertilizer, fuel and labor, is the key. Productivity, combined with a reduction in loss and waste along the entire agricultural value chain, is the pathway to meeting the world’s coming needs for food, feed, fiber and fuel.

New research from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) provides a clear insight into the technologies that can have the highest impact on farm productivity, prices, hunger and trade flows as we approach 2050.  The report describes the relative yield gains (on a country, regional, and global level) that 11 different technologies and practices provide for maize, rice and wheat—both for a climate that is “hotter and wetter” and one that is “colder and drier.”

Take the practice of “No-Till” agriculture, for example. No-Till is a form of conservation agriculture that uses minimum or no soil disturbance, often in combination with crop rotation and cover crops, to ensure crops are getting the maximum amount of water and nutrients.

IFPRI’s online model shows that Investing in no-till technology in North America could boost irrigated maize yields by a whopping 57.6%, even under climate change conditions.

And it’s not just the US that could benefit. Climate change is already impacting food-insecure areas where hunger is a persistent problem, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. In Tanzania, the same research shows that no-till cultivation of irrigated maize under the hotter/wetter climate scenario can result in a huge yield increase of 122 percent by 2050.

Other technologies have also been shown to have a dramatic effect on North American farms. Efficient use of nitrogen, for example could boost irrigated maize yields by 46.4 percent. In Myanamar, the same technology could boost yields of irrigated rice by almost 68 percent.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. While in the US, the practices of No-Till and use of Heat Tolerance Technology (improved genetic varieties with characteristics allowing plants to maintain yields at higher temperatures) for maize and wheat provide the highest boosts in yields by 2050—these technologies have less impact in regions that do not encounter drought so regularly.

The global population won’t reach 9 billion until 2050—but the challenge of growing food must be met here, and now. The world needs to produce more, by using and wasting less. Solutions must be found for farmers of all scales and size to adapt to the aggressive changes in climate we are all witnessing. The answers are out there—but require a great deal of investment and commitment to make them a viable option for farmers. But if the result is protecting our environment whilst keeping food prices down and the population nourished, the decision to invest is surely a no-brainer.


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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