Agricultural Trade and Keeping the Big Picture in Mind


After short grain supplies and high prices in 2008, a number of food security groups issued reports about food supplies out to the year 2050.  While those analyses have been less prevalent in recent years, the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation & Productivity recently released a review of the world’s progress toward food and nutrition security since it last issued a report in 2011.  The Committee has been exploring in greater depth technology and innovation in agriculture, advances in nutrition security, and sustainable agricultural systems.  

According to UN data, by 2015 developing countries are expected to reduce the prevalence of undernourishment to 13 percent of the population, almost half the rate of 1990-92 and just above the target of 12 percent.  Based on the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) 2013 GAP Report: Sustainable Pathways to Sufficient Nutritious and Affordable Food, global agricultural productivity is currently sufficient to meet the expected greater global food demand.  To no great surprise, the food price spikes of 2008 have led to more public policy focus on science-based solutions to stresses on food systems.  Trade policy negotiations have the potential to further increase movement of food globally.  Also, work continues on creating new, sustainable models for improving the livelihood of smallholder farmers.  

Despite that good news, one in eight people remains undernourished.  A growing population and a growing middle class in developing countries are driving up the demand for food.  The UN projects that the world population will reach 9.6 billion people by 2050, with most of that increase in least developed countries, doubling their population.  Africa will account for more than half of the population growth, even with a projected one-third decline in fertility.   

In 2011 the GHI estimated that total factor productivity (TFP) would need to increase 1.75 percent per year to double total agricultural output by 2050.  It was then growing at only about 1.4 percent per year.  The growth rate is now estimated at 1.81 percent per year.  There is no guarantee that rate will continue in the future, but it does show that, collectively, the world has the ability to organize resources to sustain a high productivity growth rate.  Along with producing more food, loss and waste need to be reduced.  According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, at least one-third of the world’s food produced (nearly a quarter of all calories) is wasted each year.

The Committee’s initial report noted that sustainable food security would need to involve the 500 million small farms that provide 80 percent of the food supply in some developing countries.  They need access to advanced technologies to move from subsistence farmers to market suppliers meeting the needs of growing urban markets.  The latest hybrid seed varieties can yield 5 to 15 percent above non-drought tolerant varieties.  In 2013, over 90 percent of the 18 million farmers growing biotechnology crops were smallholders in developing countries.  They are also adopting other technologies such as modern irrigation practices, fertilizer and mechanization that can double or triple crop yields.  The lack of extension services and financing mechanisms continue to limit the utilization of new technologies.  That is particularly true for women who comprise 43 percent of farm workers in developing countries.

Some countries do not have adequate land and water resources and have difficult climatic conditions.  Movement of food across national borders and from agricultural regions to major cities is a crucial component of global food and nutrition security.  The world population recently became more urban than rural and is projected by the UN to be 70 percent urban by 2050.  As the committee explained in its 2011 report, trade policies continue to be important in providing for the free flow of food to countries that cannot meet their own food demand.  That makes new trade agreements like the current negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TTP) among the U.S. and eleven Asian-Pacific countries particularly important.  About three-fourths of U.S. agricultural exports go to the Asia-Pacific region.  

Barriers to new technology, including biotechnology, that increase output per unit of input still exist due to fear and misperceptions about the role of science and technology in agriculture and food.  To provide more tools to all farmers, big and small, science-based regulatory frameworks should be strengthened for the review and approval of such technologies.  Consumers should be better informed about modern agriculture and the promise of scientific advances to improve the food supply.  Trade policy negotiations must include science-based sanitary and phytosanitary measures and respect for internationally agreed upon standards so that new technology and the food from the technology can flow to where they are needed.

The committee believes that collaboration continues to be needed among government agencies, for-profit firms and non-profit private groups.  These partnerships are particularly important to address the agricultural investment gap in developing countries estimated at $80 billion in 2012. 

A review like this would not be complete without a view on sustainability.  Agriculture utilizes about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water and uses 50 percent of the habitable land.  Livestock and crop production practices that help reduce agriculture’s footprint, like no-till farming, should be encouraged.  Farming must be seen as a worthy profession if it is to attract young people long term.  Most important of all production agriculture must be economically sustainable.  Strong value chains have to be available for farmers to connect into.

The review concludes, “The world has moved in a positive direction toward achieving food and nutrition security.”  New tools are available to better measure food and nutrition security advancement (including a Global Food Security Index commissioned by DuPont and developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit that assesses 107 countries across three dimensions – affordability, availability, and food quality and safety).  Yet, the challenges ahead cannot be ignored.   Greater investments in agricultureand better public policies, including more open agricultural trade, are needed to feed better a growing world population.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade &Technology ( Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter |Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.

Ross Korves

Ross Korves

Ross Korves served Truth about Trade & Technology, before it became Global Farmer Network, from 2004 – 2015 as the Economic and Trade Policy Analyst.

Researching and analyzing economic issues important to agricultural producers, Ross provided an intimate understanding regarding the interface of economic policy analysis and the political process.

Mr. Korves served the American Farm Bureau Federation as an Economist from 1980-2004. He served as Chief Economist from April 2001 through September 2003 and held the title of Senior Economist from September 2003 through August 2004.

Born and raised on a southern Illinois hog farm and educated at Southern Illinois University, Ross holds a Masters Degree in Agribusiness Economics. His studies and research expanded internationally through his work in Germany as a 1984 McCloy Agricultural Fellow and study travel to Japan in 1982, Zambia and Kenya in 1985 and Germany in 1987.

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