High agricultural commodity prices and the need to increase food production by 70-100 percent by 2050 continue to spawn reports on increasing food production. The latest contributions include Save and Grow: A policymaker’s guide to the sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, and Embracing Science-Based Technologies, the fourth of five papers outlining the policy priorities of the Global Harvest Initiative, a U.S.-based project underwritten by major agricultural companies in consultation with non-government environmental organizations.

 

Save and Grow is targeted at 2.5 billion people in low-income farm families in developing countries to enable them to maximize yields and invest savings in health and education. It promotes what the authors say is a paradigm for sustainable crop production intensification (SCPI), summed up as “save and grow”. According to Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General, it is a “major shift from the homogeneous model of crop production to knowledge-intensive, often location-specific, farming systems. Its application will require significant support to farmers in testing new practices and adapting technologies.” Governments need to strengthen programs in plant breeding and seed distribution and provide incentives for adoption of SCPI.

The Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) mission is to “eliminate the global productivity gap by sustainably doubling agricultural output to meet the needs of a growing world.” In a previous analysis they concluded that productivity from a relatively fixed bundle of agricultural resources needs to increase at an average annual rate of 1.75 percent. From 2000 to 2007 the U.S. average annual rate of increase was 1.4 percent, 75 percent of the needed long-term rate of productivity increase.

GHI’s first recommendation is to have the National Academy of Sciences estimate the global losses of production resulting from failure to adopt existing technology. Part of the reason for not using current technology in some countries is the lack of a regulatory system, and the paper calls for adequate funding of regulatory systems to make decisions based exclusively on science to the maximum extent possible. A rules-based, predictable regulatory system is essential to foster innovation and develop new technology. This includes managing risk in a world where zero-risk technology does not exist. All of these will require increased funding for public and private research and protection of intellectual property rights.

These two efforts could be seen as talking past each other. A low-income farm family in China, India or Africa may seem to have little in common with larger scale farmers in the U.S., Brazil or Australia. Based on farming practices highlighted in the FAO policymakers’ guide, much can be learned from agricultural development and researchers in countries were farms are large.
In the Save and Grow chapter on farming systems, the first two practices mentioned are minimum tillage and maintaining a protective organic cover to conserve the soil, water and nutrients – known as conservation agriculture. The report acknowledges its wide use in larger scale farming areas, “Highest adoption levels (above 50 percent of crop land) are found in Australia, Canada and the southern cone of South America.” The U.S. has less than 50 percent of total cropland in conservation agriculture, but some regions and crops have high rates.

Another practice highlighted is “the use of well adapted, high-yielding varieties with resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses and improved nutritional quality.” High quality seeds are the foundation on which high yields are built in larger scale agriculture. The U.S. has had breeding programs, public and private, for over a hundred years. The rapid growth in soybean production in the cerrado region of Brazil is largely attributed to government sponsored programs of the 1960s and 1970s that adapted the crop to the region. Crop biotechnology in the last 20 years has been invaluable in pest control in large-scale and small-scale agriculture. An appropriate regulatory system is critical for developing a modern seed industry.

Judicious use of inorganic fertilizers is another important practice mentioned. High fertilizer prices have caused larger-scale farmers to use fertilizer management as part of precision agriculture to achieve use efficiencies. Efficient irrigation water management to obtain “more crops from fewer drops” is another key factor where large-scale agriculture has research to contribute to limited resource farmers. Large farms also have experience with integrated pest management.

Using existing research from large farms is important because research funds are always in short supply. The authors of Save and Grow have correctly identified increased research funding, including from developed countries, as a goal in their efforts to increase productivity. Almost all governments in developed countries face large yearly budget deficits and have trouble funding their own research priorities. Private research from publicly traded companies also has a role because it draws on investment capital that is not available to government-funded programs.

The effort to increase production for the 2.5 billion people in families of limited-resource farmers will have an impact on poverty. As noted in Save and Grow, of the 925 million undernourished people in 2010, 75 percent of them lived in rural areas of developing countries and depend directly or indirectly on agriculture. Increasing productivity immediately impacts their nutritional well being. Increasing production at the farm level is good, but work remains to move food to urban areas. More people now live in urban areas than rural areas. That will increase to 70 percent by 2050. To maximize income from increased productivity, these limited-resource farmers will need supply chains to connect them to urban areas.

Agricultural development reports often appear to divide large farmers and limited-resource farmers as if they have nothing in common. All farmers start with the soil, seed, labor and other inputs. Researchers and farmers in regions with less technology and lower yields can continue to learn from the failures and successes of other farmers. To do otherwise is a waste of knowledge, experience and money.

Ross Korves is the Economic Policy Analyst for Truth About Trade & Technology.