INCREASED demand for food due to population and income growth and the effects of climate change on agriculture is expected to ratchet up the pressure for increased and more sustainable agricultural production to feed the planet, according to a new report released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
The report, along with another one also recently released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), confirms the positive benefits agricultural innovation will have on farm productivity, prices, hunger and trade flows as the world approaches 2050.
IFPRI's report, "Food Security in a World of Natural Resource Scarcity: The Role of Agricultural Technologies," examines 11 agricultural practices and technologies and how they could help farmers around the world improve the sustainability of growing three of the world's main staple crops: maize, rice and wheat.
"Enhanced investment in agricultural research and technological change has been a game changer in the past, and we think it can in the future, as well," said Mark Rosegrant, lead author of the report and director of IFPRI's Environment & Production Technology Division.
Using a first-of-its-kind data model, IFPRI pinpointed the agricultural technologies and practices that can most significantly reduce food prices and food insecurity in developing nations.
The study profiles 11 agricultural innovations: 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.
According to the report, no-till farming alone could increase maize yields 20% by 2050, but irrigating the same no-till fields also could increase maize yields by 67% in the same time frame (Figure).
Additionally, the study found that nitrogen use efficiency could increase rice crop yields 22%, but irrigation could increase the yields by another 21%.
Heat-tolerant varieties could improve wheat crop yields from a 17% increase to a 23% increase with irrigation, the report points out.
According to the authors, it is necessary to use a combination of methods because one single method would not be able to improve or increase future agricultural productivity alone.
"The reality is that no single agricultural technology or farming practice will provide sufficient food for the world in 2050," Rosegrant said. "Instead, we must advocate for and utilize a range of these technologies in order to maximize yields."
The report authors did point out that it is realistic to assume that farmers in the developing world and elsewhere would adopt a combination of technologies as they become more widely available.
Additionally, they said if farmers were to stack agricultural technologies in order of crop production schedules, the combination of agricultural technologies and practices could reduce food prices by as much as 49% for maize, 43% for rice and 45% for wheat due to increased crop productivity.
The technologies with the highest degree of potential impact for agriculture in developing countries include no-till farming, nitrogen use efficiency, heat-tolerant crops and crop protection from weeds, insects and diseases.
The authors suggested that the anticipated negative effects of climate change on agricultural productivity as well as projected population growth by 2050 will increase food insecurity and food prices.
For example, they estimated that climate change could decrease maize yields by as much as 18% by 2050 — making it even more difficult to feed the world if farmers cannot adopt agricultural technologies that help boost food production in their regions.
"One of the most significant barriers to global food security is the high cost of food in developing countries," Rosegrant explained. "Agricultural technologies used in combinations tailored to the crops grown and regional differences could make more food more affordable, especially for those at risk of hunger and malnutrition in developing countries."
Based on current projections, the authors pointed out that stacked technologies could reduce food insecurity by as much as 36%. Making this a reality, however, depends on farmers gaining access to these technologies and learning how to use them.
This underscores the need for improved agricultural education to ensure that farmers are able to use the best available technologies for their region and resources.
Rosegrant said one of the challenges is getting farmers to see the benefits of practices like no-till farming.
"To get long-term impacts, they have to stick with it for years," Rosegrant explained. "If farmers don't see the impacts right away, they may give up."
This is where education becomes extremely important.
"Farmers in 27 countries are already enjoying increased crop productivity and quality, individual and community socioeconomic improvements and environmental benefits of sustainable agriculture enabled through plant biotechnology," said Denise Dewar, executive director for plant biotechnology at CropLife International. "As growing conditions become more extreme due to climate change, models have shown that farmers in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia will only continue to benefit from innovative biotech traits, such as drought- and heat-tolerant and nitrogen use-efficient seeds."
According to ISAAA's annual global biotech crop acreage report released recently in Beijing, China, more than 18 million farmers are planting biotech crops on 175 million hectares.
ISAAA reported that smallholder farmers in developing countries can especially benefit from plant biotechnology as they face the most extreme food security and productivity challenges.
Of the farmers planting biotech crops, more than 90%, or 16.5 million, are small-scale and resource-poor farmers. Of the 27 countries planting biotech crops, 19 are developing countries.
"For nearly two decades, the plant science industry has been committed to developing and commercializing innovative products and traits that benefit farmers, consumers and the environment," Dewar said. "As farmers face the daunting challenge of feeding the world's largest population under tough climate and growing conditions, new biotech traits that maintain and increase crop productivity under heat and drought conditions, as well as help crops more efficiently use nitrogen, will be crucial to achieving food security."
The IFPRI report highlights three key areas for investments prioritizing effective technology use.
First, it emphasized the importance of investment in agricultural research that will help improve crop productivity.
Also, investing in the development and implementation of resource-conserving agricultural management practices — such as no-till farming, integrated soil fertility management, improved crop protection and precision agriculture — is the only way to actually progress toward increased global food security and food production.
Last, IFPRI recommended increasing investment in irrigation to help meet challenges during dry weather conditions.
Improving global food security and increasing crop productivity will require support from many sectors. Both reports from IFPRI and ISAAA provide evidence that it can be done, but not without investment, education, implementation and commitment from all parties working toward the solutions.