It is a daunting challenge to feed the 7.2 billion people who live on earth today as well as to meet the food requirements for a population expected to exceed 9.5 billion by 2050. Factor in limitations on the availability of natural resources such as land and water and trends such as urbanization and climate change and this challenge seems enormous.
A gathering last week in Des Moines, Iowa highlighted these issues and while it receives little attention from the national news media, every year, the Borlaug Dialogue brings together government leaders, policymakers, farmers, business executives, leaders of non-government organizations, researchers and academic experts. The discussion is an important one - how to feed the world.
The Borlaug Dialogue celebrates the work of Dr. Norman E. Borlaug - the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize - for his work in world agriculture. During the week, the World Food Prize is awarded in recognition of those who improve the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. In addition, the Global Harvest Initiative delivers its annual report describing the gaps that remain to meet the challenge of feeding the world now and in the future.
Each year, the conference in Des Moines highlights a well-accepted conclusion - agricultural output must increase significantly by 2050, perhaps as much as 70 percent or more, if food needs are to be met. This will be accomplished by increasing the agricultural potential of all farmers, whether they produce food on 2 hectares or 20,000.
Each area of the world will be part of the solution. Achieving the available efficiencies on all farms will be critical to meeting the food needs of the future.
In North and South America, Western Europe, and Australia, among other locations, farm practices are driven by technology that guides equipment, plants with precision, measures yields and helps define plans for how to gain more incremental improvements each year.
Meanwhile, smallholder farms in Africa and Asia are more common than large operations and use less advanced equipment or sometimes none at all. The potential for productivity gains in these settings could lead to exponential increases in crop yields.
Facilitating access of smallholder farmers to fertilizer, improved seeds and better practices will help overcome some productivity barriers. Experts also agree that a comprehensive value chain approach is essential. Investment in storage facilities, water management, farm-to-market roads, bridges and ports, are critical to the success of a value chain approach in emerging markets.
In addition, the need to produce more food and the worldwide shortage of farm labor has led to an increased emphasis on mechanization of farm practices in emerging economies.
NGOs like TechnoServe play a critical role in training farmers in modern practices. Samuel Kusi is a farmer in Kobedi, Ghana, who grows four hectares of maize. After innovative training clinics that taught advanced farming practices, mechanization and some modern inputs, Samuel has increased his crop yields by a factor of four.
TechnoServe developed and is delivering critical agricultural extension services using mobile training units (MTU). Preliminary findings indicate the MTU approach holds great promise, allowing multiple farmers to be trained effectively in a shorter time frame and in their home communities.
This enables minimal disruption to families, greater accessibility to training modules by all farmers in a village, including women, and a more customized training approach based on local cropping practices.
Importantly, smallholder farmers are taking ownership of their business and moving from mere subsistence to providing food for others. Meanwhile, progress in large production agriculture around the world will continue to increase yields but productivity growth is needed across the full farming spectrum.
Events such as the Borlaug Dialogue are essential to keeping the world focused on this important challenge - to sustainably feed the ever-increasing global population.