In the mid 20th century, scientific advances in agriculture dramatically increased food production. These advances also staved off widespread famine, and allowed the world’s population to grow. But a new study suggests that food production isn’t increasing as rapidly as it once was – a trend that could potentially exacerbate hunger around the world.
Philip Pardey: What we’re detecting here in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world is that the rate of growth in the last decade, decade and a half, is substantially lower than it has been in the previous three or four decades.
Philip Pardey is professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota. He said the world is going to keep increasing its food production, but at a rate that might not be able to keep up with the world’s population growth. According to U.N. studies, global population might reach 9 billion by 2050.
Philip Pardey: The big picture is that we’re trying to match the growth in the supply of food with the growth in demand for that food.
Pardey added that, ultimately, if the supply of food can’t match demand, food prices will rise.
Philip Pardey: Many people in developing countries spend 80% of their income on food, so an increase in food prices puts a serious dent in the amount of food they can afford to purchase.
Today, one billion people are already undernourished. Pardey’s study showed that since the 1990’s, agricultural productivity has grown at 1% per year, whereas from 1950 – 1990, agricultural productivity grew at double that rate.
Philip Pardey: There are really clear signs emerging that we’ve got these structural shifts in productivity growth, and very clear evidence that we’ve had a structural shift in the amount and nature of agricultural research.
Pardey explained that one cause of the decrease in agricultural productivity is slowing agricultural research, on things like productive crop varieties and fertilizers. He said that funds previously channeled to agricultural science are now going to environmental research and health concerns, such as obesity. .
Philip Pardey: Why this is happening is a complicated question. Part of it may well be a sense of complacency that we had these very substantial increases in productivity back in the 50s and 60s. I think many people, and policy makers, thought we solved food supply problem, not recognizing that this is a long run game.
He said that still, he is optimistic that global agriculture will be able to provide food for 9 billion.
Philip Pardey: The history of agriculture over the past 50 or 100 years is that we’ve made massive improvements in the productivity and use of land in agriculture so we have been able to feed a lot more people. I’m quite optimistic that there is prospect, and the big question on the table is whether we use that prospect.
Dr. Pardey’s study was published in the journal Science in September 2009.
Learning to love science. As a producer for EarthSky, Lindsay Patterson interviews some of the world's most fascinating scientists. Through EarthSky, her work content is syndicated on some of the world's top media websites, including USAToday.com and Reuters.com. Patterson is also charged with helping to stay in steady communication with the thousands of scientists who contribute to EarthSky's work of making the voice of science heard in a noisy world. She graduated from Colorado College with a degree in creative writing, and a keen interest in all forms of journalism and media.