June 11, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

The Final Frontier

The challenge before us was laid out in all its daunting intensity:

Current levels of food production in the world will have to double by the year 2050 if we are to feed a growing population and a population that is growing more prosperous – along with eliminating the hunger that already plagues one billion people.  We will have to do that with tight land and water constraints.  With little land available for agriculture expansion without destroying the environment, yields of existing fields will necessarily need to double.  And with agriculture consuming 70% of the fresh water used in the world, farmers will need to triple their “crop per drop” if water supplies aren’t to be exhausted.

That was the scene set by Robert Thompson, professor emeritus in agriculture policy at the University of Illinois, and other speakers at a sustainable agriculture conference this week in Chicago hosted by chemical company BASF.  Despite the enormity of the challenge, there was consensus that the world’s farmers will be up to this task.  They always have been in the past, several people noted, particularly given market incentives.  It was pointed out that U.S. agriculture essentially doubled its productivity from the end of World War II to the year 2000.

But the pace of agriculture gains in the U.S. and Europe and elsewhere in the developed world has been slowing.  So, as we look around the world, where can the needed food increases come from?

Africa.  It is agriculture’s final frontier.

The continent that is home to many of the world’s hungry, is poised to make the greatest gains in food production.  It is in that position because Africa’s agriculture development has been so badly neglected in recent decades.  Innovations that have fueled farming booms elsewhere are still rare in Africa.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that sub-Saharan Africa as a whole uses less fertilizer than the single country of Bangladesh.  Only a small percentage of corn grown on the continent comes from hybrid seeds – the conventionally bred seeds that have multiplied yields across the developed world.  Much of the continent’s water resources – such as the great Blue Nile River in Ethiopia – remain underutilized as the vast majority of farms remain rain fed.

Enter the “Feed the Future” initiative of the Obama administration which sees to reverse this neglect.  Enter the accelerated actions of philanthropies and corporations and humanitarian agencies to end hunger through agriculture development.  Enter Africa, a new ally in these efforts.  Invest in research, spread the new innovations far and wide, improve the infrastructure.  Just one elemental, relatively inexpensive improvement like more and better storage facilities to reduce post-harvest loss – which in some African countries wastes as much as 40% of the harvest – would be an important addition to the continent’s, and the world’s, food supply.

We have explored the frontiers of space.  We are pushing the frontiers of technology and communication.  Now we need to boost the productivity of farming’s final frontier.  What a great achievement it would be if the farmers we have so neglected come to our aid, if today’s hungry someday help to feed us.  A daunting challenge, but doable.


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The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 

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Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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