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Future of Food Could Be Bright

French agencies' study punctures assumptions about the state of global agriculture.

by Barbara Casassus

The world will be able to feed the predicted 2050 population of nine billion people, according to two French agricultural research organizations. In a joint report published today, they lay out findings gleaned from 2006 to 2008 that could overturn some current assumptions about the state of global farming.

The report, titled Agrimonde1, is published by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and the Centre for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD), both headquartered in Paris. It contains some surprise findings on Africa and other regions -- the latest results from an ongoing study by the two research agencies.

Agricultural productivity in Africa doubled between 1961 and 2003 -- a finding that overturns most assumptions "and is one of the most surprising results of our work", Patrick Caron, CIRAD's director-general for research and strategy, told reporters last night.

African productivity remains the lowest in the world, however, averaging 10,000 kilocalories per hectare (kcal ha-1) compared with 20,000 kcal ha-1globally and 25,000 kcal ha-1 in Asia. Productivity elsewhere doubled or tripled over the same period.

Asian aggregate

Asia scored higher on productivity than in other studies, because the agencies looked at aggregate rather than independent annual yields of wheat, rice and other crops, explains Bruno Dorin, an economist at CIRAD and one of the report's authors. "In Asia, the wheat yield may be lower, but if you take account of rice and other crops grown in the same year, the total yield is higher," he says.

Another finding to emerge is that major reserves of potential farmland exist across the globe, especially in Africa and Latin America, Dorin says. "The 1.5 billion hectares of land now cultivated could be increased to 4 billion, but this would of course be at the expense of pastures and forests, which are a reservoir of biodiversity and carbon," he adds.

More a confirmation than a surprise was that in the past 15 years, yields of wheat have stagnated in Europe and other major producing regions such as northern India, says François Houllier, INRA's deputy director-general in charge of scientific organization, resources and evaluation. This was caused partly by a reduction in inputs such as fertilizer and changes in farming practices. For example, farmers stopped alternating wheat with pulses, which fix nitrogen in the soil, he says.

Food figures

The study encompasses research and foresight studies carried out by the two agencies, drawing on 30 billion statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

The conclusion that the world will be able to feed its predicted population of nine billion in 2050 came from consideration of two scenarios. One stresses economic growth but gives low priority to the environment, whereas the other emphasizes feeding the world while preserving ecosystems. The second scenario, based on a food intake of 3,000 kcal per person per day in all regions of the world, including 500 kcal per day of animal origin, would require an increase of 30% in farm output -- compared with 80% for the first scenario -- and would mean a substantial cut in food consumption in some countries and a big increase in others.

The report leaves out details on issues such as land use, biofuel and climate change, as these will be addressed in future studies by the agencies' joint interdisciplinary Agrimonde platform, which brings together a steering committee, project team and expert panel. Neither does the report make any policy recommendations. "That is not our job," officials say. The aim is now to identify key agricultural questions to be taken up by the international research community.The figure of 3,000 kcal per day is the current world average for individual food intake, with consumption ranging from 4,000 kcal per day in the industrialized countries within the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to less than 2,500 kcal per day in sub-Saharan Africa.

Changes in food needs, living standards, climate and other factors call for new avenues of research, according to the report. The two agencies have already started work on several programmes in response to questions raised by their study. These include the Dualine project on food sustainability; European projects looking at the longevity of animal production; food-market regulation; and the use of international consortiums to develop new production strategies for rice, wheat and other cereals. Another priority is land usage modelling.

The study recognizes the scale of the task, concluding that in "a world of rare resources, the rarest of all may be time".

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