The 9 billion-people questionA special report on feeding the world l February 26th 2011
The Economist February 26th 2011 A special report on feeding the world 1 The 9 billion-people questionAlso in this sectionHow much is enough?The answer is less straightforward than itseems. Page 3Plagued by politicsBiofuels are an example of what not to do.Page 4No easy xSimply using more of everything to producemore food will not work. Page 6Waste not, want notFar too much food never reaches the plate.Page 8Doing more with lessThe only reliable way to produce more food isto use better technology. Page 9Our daily bread The world’s population will grow from almost 7 billion now to over 9Bringing wheat up to scratch. Page 11 billion in 2050. John Parker asks if there will be enough food to go roundNot just caloriesPeople also need the right nutrients. Page 13 T HE 1.6-hectare (4-acre) Broadbalk eld lies in the centre of Rothamsted farm, about 40km (25 miles) north of London. In their disposal. Given the same technology, European and American farmers get the same results. 1847 the farm’s founder, Sir John Lawes, de- The wheat bearing 4 or 5 tonnes a hect-A prospect of plenty scribed its soil as a heavy loam resting on are is, roughly, like that of the Green Revo-For the rst time in history, the whole of chalk and capable of producing good lution, the transformation of agriculturemankind may get enough to eat. Page 14 wheat when well manured. The 2010 har- that swept the world in the 1970s. It has vest did not seem to vindicate his judg- been treated with herbicides and some fer-Acknowledgments ment. In the centre of the eld the wheat is tilisers, but not up to the standard of theThe author is grateful to the many people from the abundant, yielding 10 tonnes a hectare, most recent agronomic practices, nor is itorganisations listed below who gave generously of theirtime and expertise in the preparation of this report. A full one of the highest rates in the world for a the highest-yielding semi-dwarf wheatlist of their names is available online. commercial crop. But at the western end, variety. This is the crop of the Indian sub-Agmark Kenya, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in near the manor house, it produces only 4 continent and of Argentina.Africa, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,Biodiversity International, the Biotechnology and or 5 tonnes a hectare; other, spindlier, The extraordinary results in the centreBiological Sciences Research Council, Brasil-Agro, the plants yield just 1 or 2 tonnes. of the eld are achieved by using the bestBrazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research, the Broadbalk is no ordinary eld. The rst plants, fertilisers, fungicides and husband-Chicago Council on Global A airs, the Donald DanforthPlant Science Centre, Farm Inputs Promotions Africa, experimental crop of winter wheat was ry. The yield is higher than the national av-the Federation of the Industries of the State of São Paulo, sown there in the autumn of 1843, and for erage in Britain, and is as good as it gets.the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Global Harvest the past 166 years the eld, part of the Roth-Initiative, HarvestPlus, the International FinanceCorporation, the International Fund for Agricultural amsted Research station, has been the site Seeds of doubtDevelopment, the International Livestock Research of the longest-running continuous agricul- But the Broadbalk eld shows somethingInstitute, the International Maize and Wheat tural experiment in the world. Now di er- else. Chart 1 on the next page tracks itsImprovement Centre, the John Innes Centre, Kraft Foods,Moi University, Eldoret, Monsanto, the Abdul Latif Jameel ent parts of the eld are sown using di er- yields from the start, showing how thePoverty Action Lab, Nestlé, Rothamsted Research, ent practices, making Broadbalk a micro- three di erent kinds of wheat farming Af-Syngenta, Western Seed Company, Kenya, the World cosm of the state of world farming. rican, Green Revolution and modernBank, World Resources Institute, the United StatesDepartment of Agriculture. The wheat yielding a tonne a hectare is have diverged, sometimes quite suddenly: like an African eld, and for the same rea- in the 1960s with the introduction of newA list of sources is at son: this crop has had no fertiliser, pesti- herbicides for Green Revolution wheat, Economist.com/specialreports cide or anything else applied to it. African and in the 1980s with new fungicides and farmers are sometimes thought to be semi-dwarf varieties. Worryingly, though,An audio interview with the author is at somehow responsible for their low yields, in the past 15 years the yields of the most Economist.com/audiovideo/specialreports but the blame lies with the technology at productive varieties of wheat in Broadbalk 1
2 A special report on feeding the world The Economist February 26th 20112 have begun to level out or even fall. The on food. The numbers of those below the Peaky 2 fear is that Broadbalk may prove a micro- poverty level of $1.25 a day, which had cosm in this respect, too. The Economist commodity-price index, food* been falling consistently in the 1990s, rose At the start of 2011 the food industry is sharply in 2007-08. That seems to suggest 240 in crisis. World food prices have risen that the world cannot even feed its current above the peak they reached in early 2008 220 population, let alone the 9 billion expected (see chart 2). That was a time when hun- 200 by 2050. Adding further to the concerns is dreds of millions of people fell into pover- 180 climate change, of which agriculture is ty, food riots were shaking governments in 160 both cause and victim. So how will the dozens of developing countries, exporters 140 world cope in the next four decades? were banning grain sales abroad and land 120 That question forms the backbone of grabs carried out by rich grain-importing this special report. The answer to it cannot 100 nations in poor agricultural ones were rais- be a straightforward technical or biological ing awkward questions about how best to 80 one because food is basic to life. In the 2006 07 08 09 10 11 help the poor. Maya creation myth, the rst humans were Source: The Economist *2005=100 This time, too, there have been export made of maize dough. In the slang of Ma- bans, food riots, panic buying and emer- rathi, a language of west central India, the gency price controls, just as in 2007-08. promising to nd $20 billion for agricul- man on the street is known as fried Fears that drought might ruin the current ture over three years. This year the current bread after the workers’ favourite snack. wheat crop in China, the world’s largest, president of the Group of 20 (G20), Because food is so important, agricul- are sending shock waves through world France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to make ture more than any other form of eco- markets. Discontent over rising bread food the top priority. The Gates Founda- nomic activity is expected to achieve a se- prices has played a part in the popular tion, the world’s richest charity, which had ries of competing and overlapping goals uprisings throughout the Middle East. previously focused on health and develop- that change over time and from place to There are di erences between the periods, ment generally, started to concentrate place. The world looks to farmers to do but the fact that agriculture has experi- more on feeding the world. At last month’s more than just produce food. Agriculture is enced two big price spikes in under four World Economic Forum, a gathering of also central to reducing hunger (which is years suggests that something serious is businesspeople and policymakers in Da- not quite the same thing) and provides rattling the world’s food chain. vos, 17 global companies launched what many people’s main route out of poverty. The food industry has been attracting they described as a new vision for agricul- Food is probably the biggest single in u- extra attention of other kinds. For years ture , promising to do more to promote ence on people’s health, though in radical- some of the most popular television pro- markets for smallholders a sign of rising ly di erent ways in poor countries and in grammes in English-speaking countries alarm in the private sector. rich ones, where the big problem now is have been cooking shows. That may point obesity. Food is also one of the few plea- to a healthy interest in food, but then again Anything for dinner? sures available to the poorest. In the favelas it may not. The historian Livy thought the Some of this public and political attention (slums) of São Paulo, the largest city in Roman empire started to decay when has been sporadic, but it is justi ed. An era South America, takeaway pizza parlours cooks acquired celebrity status. of cheap food has come to an end. A com- are proliferating because many families, At a meeting of the Group of Eight (G8) bination of factors rising demand in India who often do not have proper kitchens, industrial countries in 2009 the assembled and China, a dietary shift away from cere- now order a pizza at home to celebrate spe- leaders put food alongside the global - als towards meat and vegetables, the in- cial occasions. nancial crisis on their list of top priorities, creasing use of maize as a fuel, and devel- Given these con icting aims, it is not opments outside agriculture, such as the surprising that the food crisis has pro- fall in the dollar have brought to a close a duced contradictory accounts of the main Fertile ground 1 period starting in the early 1970s in which problem and radically di erent proposals 1 Broadbalk average wheat yields the real price of staple crops (rice, wheat Tonnes per hectare and maize) fell year after year. Meat on the menu 3 Continuous wheat: 1st wheat in rotation: This has come as a shock. By the 1990s unmanured best inorganic most agricultural problems seemed to Global food demand, 1961=100 fertilisers † inorganic fertilisers* have been solved. Yields were rising, pests best organic manures ‡ 600 organic manure only appeared under control and fertilisers Meat 10 were replenishing tired soil. The exciting Dairy 500 8 areas of research in life sciences were no Sugar Cereals Starchy 400 longer plants but things like HIV/AIDS. roots 6 The end of the era of cheap food has co- 300 4 incided with growing concern about the 200 prospects of feeding the world. Around the 2 turn of 2011-12 the global population is fore- 100 0 cast to rise to 7 billion, stirring Malthusian FORECAST 1855 80 90 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 000 6070 1900 2 2005 fears. The price rises have once again 0 1961 70 80 90 2000 10 20 30 40 50 Source: *With too little nitrogen †For maximum plunged into poverty millions of people Rothamsted Research yield ‡Plus spring nitrogen Source: Food and Agriculture Organisation who spend more than half their income
The Economist February 26th 2011 A special report on feeding the world 32 for solving it. One group is concerned on the food problems of richer countries, fore gives greater weight to the rst group. mainly about feeding the world’s growing such as concerns about animal welfare It argues that many of their claims are justi- population. It argues that high and volatile and obesity. It argues that modern agricul- ed: feeding the world in 2050 will be prices will make the job harder and that ture produces food that is tasteless, nutri- hard, and business as usual will not do it. more needs to be done to boost supplies tionally inadequate and environmentally The report looks at ways to boost yields of through the spread of modern farming, disastrous. It thinks the Green Revolution the main crops, considers the constraints plant research and food processing in poor has been a failure, or at least that it has of land and water and the use of fertiliser countries. For those in this group food done more environmental damage and and pesticide, assesses biofuel policies, ex- companies, plant breeders and interna- brought fewer bene ts than anyone ex- plains why technology matters so much tional development agencies the Green pected. An in uential book espousing this and examines the impact of recent price Revolution was a stunning success and view, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s rises. It points out that although the con- needs to be followed by a second one now. Dilemma , starts by asking: What should cerns of the critics of modern agriculture The alternative view is sceptical of, or we have for dinner? By contrast, those may be understandable, the reaction even downright hostile to, the modern worried about food supplies wonder: against intensive farming is a luxury of the food business. This group, in uential Will there be anything for dinner? rich. Traditional and organic farming could among non-governmental organisations This special report concentrates on the feed Europeans and Americans well. It and some consumers, concentrates more problems of feeding the 9 billion. It there- cannot feed the world. 7 How much is enough? The answer is less straightforward than it seems I N HIS 1981 essay, Poverty and Famines , Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, ar- gued that the 1943 Bengal famine, in which 3m people died, was not caused by any ex- ceptional fall in the harvest and pointed out that food was still being exported from the state while millions perished. He con- cluded that the main reason for famines is not a shortage of basic food. Other fac- tors wages, distribution, even democra- cy matter more. In 1996 the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that the world was producing enough food to provide every man, woman and child with 2,700 calories a day, several hundred more than most adults are thought to need (around 2,100 a day). The Lancet, a medical journal, reckons people need no more than 90 grammes of meat a day. On aver- age they eat more than that now. As Abhijit Banerjee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says, we live in a world that is capable of feeding every person that lives Hooked on meat on the planet. Indeed, the world produces more than food? Part of the answer is prices. If output Another part of the answer is that it is just enough to go round. Allowing for all falls below demand, prices will tend to hard to improve distribution and reduce the food that could be eaten but is turned rise, even if excess calories are being pro- poverty. The world may indeed be grow- into biofuels, and the staggering amounts duced. That happened in 2007-08, and is ing masses of calories. But the food is not wasted on the way, farmers are already happening again now. Over the past four where it needs to be, and biofuel policy is producing much more than is required years prices have been more volatile than hard to shift (see box, next page). Pushing more than twice the minimum nutritional they have been for decades. This is bad for up supplies may be easier than solving the needs by some measures. If there is a food farmers (who are left not knowing how distribution problems. problem, it does not look like a technical or and where to invest) and worse for con- But it will still be a daunting task. On biological one. sumers, especially the poor, who risk sud- one reckoning, in order to keep up with So why worry about producing more denly being unable to a ord basic food. population growth farmers will have to 1
4 A special report on feeding the world The Economist February 26th 20112 grow more wheat and maize over the next billion tonnes to the 2 billion produced in meat. So meat demand will rise strongly. In 40 years than was grown in the previous 2005-07. That is much less than during the 2000, 56% of all the calories consumed in 500. The balance between what is con- previous 40 years, when cereal production developing countries were provided by ce- sumed and what farmers produce matters rose by 250%. reals and 20% by meat, dairy and vegetable a great deal. True, the headline numbers somewhat oils. By 2050, the FAO thinks, the contribu- So how do you keep that balance? Start underestimate the problem. Families have tion of cereals will have dropped to 46% with consumption, the side of the equa- been getting smaller for decades, so there and that of meat, dairy and fats will have tion that can be forecast with some accura- are proportionately fewer children in de- risen to 29%. To match that soaring de- cy. The forecast rise in world’s population, veloping countries than there used to be. mand, meat production will need to in- from just under 7 billion at the start of 2011 Many of those countries are bene ting crease to 470m tonnes by 2050, almost to just over 9 billion in 2050, is the equiva- from a demographic dividend : an double its current level. Output of soya- lent of two extra Indias. If you include the 1 unusually large proportion of young beans (most of which are fed to animals) billion people who are now going hungry, adults in the population, who work hard will more than double, to 515m tonnes. the additional mouths to feed over the but eat more than children or older people. Overall, the FAO reckons, total demand next 40 years add up to three extra Indias. for food will rise about 70% in the 44 years It is not an impossible task. The increase Rise of the carnivores from 2006 to 2050, more than twice as in world population by 2050 will be Moreover, an increasing proportion of the much as demand for cereals. But that is still around 30%, less than in the 40 years to population is living in cities, and dollar for less than half as much as the rise in food 2010, when it rose by over 80%. Consump- dollar city-dwellers eat more food and es- production in the 44 years from 1962 to tion of wheat, rice and maize roughly pecially more processed foods than their 2006. So according to the FAO’s Kostas Sta- tracks population growth but at a higher country cousins. They also tend to be rich- moulis, producing enough food to feed the level, so demand for them will add about a er and able to a ord pricier food, such as world in the next four decades should be 1 Biofuels are an example of Plagued by politics what not to do T HIS is the craziest thing we’re do- ing, says Peter Brabeck, the chair- man of Nestlé. He is talking about govern- for the fuels, or food prices would rise by anything from 15-40%, which would have dreadful consequences. ment biofuels targets which require a Not all ethanols are the same. Brazil, certain proportion of national energy the world’s second-largest producer, needs to be met from renewable fuels, makes its fuel mainly from sugar. Process- most of them biofuels (ie, ethyl alcohol ing plants can go back and forth between made from crops, usually maize or sugar). ethanol and crystallised sugar at the ick The targets are ambitious. Brazil, Japan, of a switch, depending on prices. Brazil Indonesia and the European Union all say gets eight units of energy for every unit biofuels must supply 10% of energy de- that goes into making it, so the process is mand for transport by 2020. China’s target relatively e cient and environmentally for that date is 5%. America aspires to meet friendly. In contrast, American ethanol 30% of such needs from biofuels by 2030. produces only 1.5 units of energy output Because the energy market is worth per unit of input, but its ine ciency is un- vastly more than the market for food, even derwritten by government subsidies and relatively small targets translate into huge high tari walls. American farmers say demand for crops. Ethanol currently ac- that government demand for ethanol is counts for just 8% of America’s fuel for ve- starting to abate, so the impact on maize hicles, but it consumes almost 40% of supplies and prices is more modest now. America’s enormous maize crop. World All the same, one of the simplest steps ethanol production increased vefold be- to help ensure that the world has enough The wrong shade of green tween 2000 and 2010 but would have to to eat in 2050 would be to scrap every bio- rise a lot further to meet all the targets. The fuel target. If all the American maize that farmers without provoking too many ob- FAO reckons that, if this were to happen goes into ethanol were instead used as jections. Governments are unlikely to (which seems unlikely), it would divert a food, global edible maize supplies would abandon biofuels merely because they tenth of the world’s cereal output from increase by 14%. are ine cient and damaging. We can’t food to fuels. Alternatively, if food-crop But that is not going to happen. Bio- produce biofuels and feed the world’s in- production were to remain stable, a huge fuels have not only diverted crops to fuel creased population, says Mr Brabeck. But amount of extra land would be needed but have also diverted public subsidies to for the moment we will have to.
The Economist February 26th 2011 A special report on feeding the world 52 easier than in the previous four. ity more than quantity. Indeed, in America Should be, but probably won’t be. In- farm output is rising but the use of fertilis- creasing food supplies by 70% in the next ers and other inputs has been cut back. 40 years may prove harder than it was to Breeders have lately been working on raise them by 150% in the previous 40. The wheat for extra protein, not just yield. main reason: problems with yields. If this is the correct explanation, farm- Yield tonnes per hectare, bushels per ers’ overall productivity is still increasing, acre or whatever is the traditional gauge since they are using fewer inputs to get the of agriculture’s performance. And the same output. And that is what some re- growth in yields has been slowing down, searchers nd. Keith Fuglie of the United from about 3% a year for staple crops in the States Department of Agriculture reckons 1960s to around 1% now. that total factor productivity in world agri- culture a measure which includes capital, Yield curb labour and other inputs is still rising at a The earlier period was that of the Green healthy 1.4% a year. This re ects a more e - Revolution, an exceptional time. Thomas cient use of resources. And if farmers are Lumpkin, the head of CIMMYT, the UN’s choosing to reduce yields now, they could international wheat and maize research also push them back up again later. organisation, thinks that farmers in devel- Other researchers, however, think glo- oping countries could often double their bal productivity is indeed slowing down, harvest by switching to Green Revolution A fancier kind of maize especially outside China. According to a seeds (many of which were developed at study using di erent de nitions from Mr CIMMYT by the organisation’s most emi- growing more slowly than population (see Fuglie’s, growth in land productivity fell by nent plant breeder, Norman Borlaug). chart 4). To be more exact: growth in popu- over one-third between 1961-90 and 1990- Now, Mr Lumpkin reckons, the best cur- lation and demand for food have both 2005, and growth in labour productivity rent technologies could perhaps increase slowed down, but crop yields have slowed fell by two-thirds. And as Mr Fuglie says, yields by 50% still a lot, but not as spectac- more. Between 1961 and 1990 wheat yields even if productivity is rising, it needs to rise ular as the earlier improvements. The low- were rising at nearly 3% a year. During that more, from an annual gain of 1.4% to 1.75%, hanging fruit has been plucked and eaten. period the world’s population was grow- he thinks a big leap. And though farmers The Green Revolution threw resources ing by an average of 1.8% a year. Between might choose to increase yields later, their at plant-breeding, which worked brilliant- 1990 and 2007 population growth slowed choice would depend partly on food prices ly. The new seeds enabled grains to absorb down to 1.4%, but the rise in annual wheat rising more than prices of inputs such as more fertiliser and water. But now there is yields slackened to 0.5%. The growth in rice fertilisers, which they may not (in 2007-08 not a lot more water to spare, and fertiliser yields between the two periods halved. fertiliser prices rose much more than food usage in some places has already passed Yields of mankind’s two most important prices). So even if productivity is increas- saturation point (see the next section), so a crops are now almost at. ing and that is not clear on its own it is new Green Revolution will have to make Some argue that these gures are not as not enough. even more e cient use of existing re- worrying as they seem. After all, popula- And what if the slower rise in yields re- sources. The next 40 years will also have to tion growth is slowing and yields of some ects something more fundamental, the deal with the potentially profound dam- crops, notably maize, are still rising at a approach of some sort of biological limit age to farming from climate change, which steady pace. And the growth in yields may in plants? The worry is not that yields are in some parts of the world could reduce have slowed not because agricultural tech- attening out in farmers’ elds, where yields by one-third. nology has hit a wall but because farmers agronomic practices or the weather or any And disturbingly, for the rst time since are cutting inputs for environmental rea- number of things may be responsible. It is the Green Revolution, crop yields are sons, or because they are focusing on qual- that there may be a problem in breeders’ elds where the potential of plants is test- ed. This possibility is controversial and Struggling to keep up 4 many breeders reject it. But the idea should Global yield growth, annual average % Annual average growth rates, % not be dismissed out of hand. The Green Revolution had little to do 1961-1990 1990-2007 3.0 with making plants bigger: rather, it pro- 0 1 2 3 Rice yield duced higher yields by persuading more 2.5 Wheat plants to grow in the same space and by 2.0 getting them to put less e ort into growing World population stalks and leaves and more into seedpods, Maize 1.5 the part people eat. The nagging fear is that 1.0 both trends may be reaching a limit. Rice The number of maize plants in a hect- 0.5 are has risen from roughly 40,000 to Soya 0 90,000 in the past half-century. There 1970 75 80 85 90 95 2000 05 must come a point where plants can no Sources: Alston, Beddow and Pardey; Food and Agriculture Organisation, UN Population Division longer be sardined any closer together, 1
6 A special report on feeding the world The Economist February 26th 20112 stalk crushed against stalk. Similarly, at are continuing to rise, thanks to huge in- tential yield growth to only 0.4% a year. It is some point it may no longer be possible to vestments by seed companies. A recent also notable that the latest research into persuade plants to put ever more energy Australian study found cereal yields in In- plants is focused not on redistributing into seeds. In animals biological limits are dia, Britain, and Australia are increasing by growth towards seeds but on making the already clear: turkeys are so bloated that about 1% a year. Britain’s government fore- whole plant bigger. they can no longer walk; chickens grow so cast in 2009 that wheat yields there would Yields may still be growing, but more quickly that they su er stress fractures. rise from 7.7 tonnes per hectare to 11.4 slowly, and even that slower growth can Racehorse speeds have levelled out. tonnes in 2025 and 13 tonnes in 2050. no longer be taken for granted. The ques- The evidence on whether plants are On the other hand, trials at CIMMYT’s tion is, how much do they need to grow to reaching similar limits is mixed. On the principal wheat-breeding station at Obre- keep abreast of the growth in the world’s one hand, maize yields in rich countries gon in Mexico indicate a slowdown in po- population of about 1.2% a year? 7 No easy x Simply using more of everything to produce more food will not work J OSE TOLEDO PISA looks out over the Cremaq farm in remote north-eastern Brazil. Thirty-tonne trucks have nished placeable Amazon jungle has already been lost and partly because many countries have used up all their available farmland. spreading lime fertiliser to reduce the acid- So though the population has soared, the ity of the soil. He is about to start planting supply of land has not. soya beans rst developed by the Brazilian However, the potential is not exhaust- agricultural-research institution, Embrapa, ed yet. The biggest agricultural success that are suited to the sweltering climate story of the past two decades has been Bra- (soyabeans were originally a temperate zil, largely because it was able to increase plant and did not grow well in the tropics). its usable acreage by making its vast cer- The computer in the farmhouse is check- rado (savannah-like grassland) bloom. By ing the temperature, the water and the lev- reducing the acidity of the soil (as at Cre- el of organic material in the soil. Five years maq), Brazil has turned the cerrado into ago much of this farm was scrubland. This one of the world’s great soyabean baskets. spring Mr Pisa will reap around 3 tonnes of A new study by the World Bank says soyabeans per hectare. the world has half a billion hectares of Land, water, fertiliser: three basic com- land with fewer than 25 people per hectare ponents of farming. At Cremaq, Mr Pisa living on them (this excludes land on has harnessed new supplies of them to which farming would be impossible, such grow abundant crops. But is that the rule or as deserts, rainforests or the Antarctic). The the exception? area currently under cultivation is 1.5 bil- lion hectares, so if all that extra land could Try making deserts bloom be used it would represent an increase of If crop yields are to match the rise in popu- one-third. In fact a lot of it either should be Limits to growth lation, then some of them will have to go left alone for environmental reasons or up dramatically. The world’s population is would be too expensive to farm. But that teristics of the soil. The cerrado itself was growing at just over 1% a year, so allowing would still leave plenty that could be use- once deemed useless for farming. something extra to feed animals because ful for farming. And some of this extra land is o set by of rising demand for meat staple yields Most of it is concentrated in a few coun- soil erosion. Africa has some of the most will have to rise by around 1.5% a year. This tries in Latin America, including Brazil and exhausted soils in the world, with less may not sound much, but it is a great deal Argentina, and in Africa in the so-called than 1% of organic matter in them, half the more than current growth rates. CIMMYT Guinea belt , a vast loop of land that level required for good fertility. For centu- reckons that, to keep prices stable, the stretches round the continent from west ries African farmers allowed for this by let- growth in rice yields will have to increase Africa to Mozambique. In 11 countries less ting the land lie fallow for eight or nine by about half, from just under 1% a year to than half the usable land is farmed. These years after a harvest. But with more people 1.5%; maize yields will have to rise by the countries could presumably boost food to feed they have to squeeze in more har- same amount; and wheat yields will have output by taking in some new land. vests, and the soil is no longer recovering. to more than double, to 2.3% a year. But estimates of land availability are The chemistry of the soil the presence Since the 1960s the traditional way of contentious. Some put available virgin in it of phosphorus, nitrogen and so on is growing more food by ploughing more land at only 10-12% of the current total, not being degraded. That at least can be cor- land has been out of favour. That is partly over 30%. The di erence depends on cost rected by fertilisers. But the biology of the for environmental reasons much irre- and politics, not just the physical charac- soil is also being damaged by the loss of or- 1
The Economist February 26th 2011 A special report on feeding the world 72 ganic matter, which can take ve to ten years to recover. Worst of all, the physical structure changes if the top soil erodes, making it harder for the land to retain wa- ter or fertiliser. Top soil can take hundreds of years to replace. And the more land is turned over to ag- riculture, the greater the loss of biodiver- sity. Three-quarters of all the world’s plant genetic material may have gone already, mostly by habitat destruction, says Pas- quale Steduto of the FAO, and more is go- ing every day. This is a worry because some of the most desirable characteristics of plants are in the wild gene pool and might be needed again one day. Scarce and precious According to the World Bank, land grabs (deals in which capital-rich food im- It will surely decline further. means that watering becomes more pre- porters buy up supposedly spare land in The reason water matters so much is cise, cutting consumption per unit of out- poor countries, farm it and ship the pro- that irrigated farming is so productive. It put. Jain Irrigation, the largest drip-feed duce back home) have had much more im- occupies only one- fth of the world’s company in India, has shown the technol- pact than expected. Only three years after farmland but contributes two- fths of the ogy can work for smallholders, cutting the rst deals, says the bank, they already world’s food output. Rice, the world’s most their water usage by about 40%. Drip-feed run to 65m hectares an eighth of the important crop in terms of calories, is irrigation also boosts overall yields be- bank’s own estimate of total available mostly irrigated, and is especially sensitive cause the plants are watered at the right land (and a third of the more modest esti- to shortage of water, stopping growth at time and get the right amounts. mates). So a lot of virgin land is already the rst sign of getting dry. Overall e ciency gains in the use of coming under the plough. Water problems will worsen both be- water could be large. Israel wastes only On balance, concludes the FAO’s Parviz cause irrigated areas will su er dispropor- about a tenth of its water, and if everyone Koohafkan, land is not a decisive problem tionately from the e ects of climate change were equally e cient, the world’s water for world agriculture. But nor, except in a and because diets are shifting towards problem would be much less pressing. Is- few countries, will it allow big increases in meat, which is thirsty . Arjen Hoekstra, of rael makes widespread use of low-volume production. the University of Twente, says it takes 1,150- irrigation such as drip-feed and micro- 2,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of sprinklers, which is expensive. The FAO Drink sparingly wheat, but about 16,000 litres of water for reckons that over the next 40 years irriga- Water, on the other hand, is crucial. At the 1kg of beef. As more people eat more meat, tion will require cumulative investment of moment it is probably agriculture’s critical rising demand by farmers will collide with almost $1trillion. That may be forthcoming limiting factor. contracting water supplies. eventually, but it won’t be soon. According to Nestlé’s Peter Brabeck, There are things farmers can do. No-till agriculture, an agronomic prac- roughly 4,200 cubic kilometres of water Roughly a third of the water used in elds tice in which farmers do not plough up the could be used each year without depleting with ordinary gravity-fed irrigation is reck- land but leave part of the previous year’s overall supplies. Consumption is higher, at oned to be wasted (more accurately, it re- crop on it, also preserves water. The resi- about 4,500 cubic kilometres a year, of charges the aquifers without being taken due acts like a blanket, lowering the soil which agriculture takes about 70%. As a re- up by plants, which is not quite the same temperature by a degree or so in the tropics sult, water tables are plummeting. The one thing). Switching to drip-feed irrigation (and thus helping to combat the e ects of in Punjab has fallen from a couple of me- global warming). It also prevents water tres below the surface to, in parts, hun- run-o and reduces evaporation by dreds of metres down. The rivers that wa- Not much left 5 30-40%, reckons Patrick Wall of CIMMYT. ter some of the world’s breadbaskets, such Uncultivated land*, latest estimate, hectares, m As a bonus, adds Shivaji Pandey of the as the Colorado, Murray-Darling and In- Share of spare land with travel time to market <6 hours, % FAO, no-till and low-till farming sequester dus, no longer reach the sea. 0 50 100 150 200 about 200kg of carbon per hectare per By 2030, on most estimates, farmers Sub-Saharan year. In parts of India, the time saved by 47 will need 45% more water. They won’t get Africa not ploughing after harvest also makes it it. Cities are the second-largest users of wa- Latin America & 76 possible to grow an extra crop. Caribbean ter, and those in the emerging world are Eastern Europe & So why hasn’t this miracle cure been 83 growing exponentially. They already ac- Central Asia adopted universally? Because of weeds. count for half the world’s population, a East & South Asia 23 They like to grow in the mat as much as share that will rise to 70% by 2050. In any Middle East & 87 crops do. It helps to have plants that are ge- dispute between cities and farmers, gov- North Africa netically engineered to resist weedkillers, ernments are likely to side with cities. Agri- Rest of world 48 but Europe has banned those. This has culture’s share of the world’s water used to *High agro-ecological potential and meant that no-till was used on only 6% of Source: World Bank population density <25 persons/km2 be 90%, so it has already fallen a long way. farmland in developing countries and 1
8 A special report on feeding the world The Economist February 26th 20112 hardly at all in Europe in 2008. search, home to the Broadbalk experi- viving winter; the banning of dangerous Agriculture’s third basic input is nitro- ment, has been tracking aphid infestations pesticides; cuts in the budgets of institu- gen. Historically, lack of nitrogen, not lack for 50 years. In 2000 no aphids had a par- tions that conducted research into dis- of land or water, has been its biggest con- ticular resistance mechanism called mace. eases; even globalisation. The corn-borer straint. The invention of a process to syn- Now 70-80% do. The aphid that causes po- moth, native to Central and North Ameri- thesise nitrogen cheaply into ammonium, tato blight now appears a month earlier ca, rst appeared in Europe in 1999 in Kos- a fertiliser, paved the way for the huge in- than it used to, so it feeds on the plant at a ovo, presumably on the boots of American crease in food production in the 20th cen- more vulnerable point in its life. peacekeepers. It has since spread in con- tury. Vaclav Smil of the University of Mani- The greater incidence of disease may be centric circles each year and is now eating toba in Winnipeg argues that this process, caused by many things: more insects sur- into maize crops in Germany and Italy. 1 rather than the transistor or computer, was the century’s most important invention, and that 2.5 billion people would not be alive without it. African farmers use an average of 10kg Waste not, want not of fertiliser per hectare. Indians use 180kg. India is richer than Africa, but not hugely so. IFAD’s Mr Nwanza thinks Africans Far too much food never reaches the plate could double yields by doubling their fer- tiliser use. Don’t overdose M ANCUR OLSON, an American econ- omist, talked about $100 bills lying on the sidewalk to express the idea of investment in future. To meet demand in the emerging megacities, more processed food is being sold in supermarkets and But there are limits, as China’s example easy gains. The amount of food that is less raw food in markets. Nutritionists shows. Since 1990 Chinese grain produc- wasted represents a gigantic stack of $100 worry about the resulting loss of quality, tion has been roughly stable but the use of bills. Both in rich countries and poor, a but there are big gains in quantity. Food fertiliser which is heavily subsidised staggering 30-50% of all food produced processors and retailers use modern silos, has risen by about 40%. China could cut rots away uneaten. According to Josef proper trucks and refrigeration the very fertiliser use by at least a third without ill Schmidhuber of the FAO, in Africa the things the rural poor lack. e ects. In fact, it would be a blessing. At the post-harvest waste largely explains why moment excess gunk runs o into rivers, many smallholders are net purchasers of Rich pickings gathers in lakes and produces toxic blooms food even though they grow enough for Rich countries waste about the same of algae. Likewise, the dead zone of the their families to eat. amount of food as poor ones, up to half northern Gulf of Mexico is caused largely In poor countries most food is wasted of what is produced, but in quite di erent by overuse of fertiliser in the American on or near the farm. Rats, mice and locusts ways. Studies in America and Britain nd Midwest that is making its way down the eat the crops in the eld or in storage. Milk that a quarter of food from shops goes Mississippi. and vegetables spoil in transit. These straight into the rubbish bin or is thrown So increased fertiliser use would boost might be considered losses rather than away by shops and restaurants. Top of the yields in some countries and be counter- waste. Kanayo Nwanze, the head of the list come salads, about half of which are productive in others. But globally there is International Fund for Agricultural De- chucked away. A third of all bread, a quar- little prospect of a big rise because of the velopment, reckons that such losses ter of fruit and a fth of vegetables all are expense. Fertiliser prices spiked even more could be reduced by half. That would be thrown out uneaten. In America this dramatically than food prices in 2007-08. the equivalent of a rise in output of amounted to 43m tonnes of food in 1997; Phosphorus prices soared and have stayed 15-25%, which would go a long way to pro- in Britain to 4m tonnes in 2006. high, re ecting fears that the stu may be viding the extra food needed by 2050. If all rich countries waste food at the running out. Making fertiliser is energy-in- Unlike in rich countries, much of the same rate as Britain and America, very tensive, so unless oil prices fall, increasing waste in poor ones is a matter of money, roughly 100kg per person per year, the to- food production by slathering ever more not behaviour. Grain is often heaped on tal waste adds up to 100m tonnes of food fertiliser on the land would be ine cient. the ground and covered with a sheet: no a year, equivalent to one-third of the en- Similar considerations apply to dealing wonder the rats get at it. Losses could be tire world’s supply of meat an astonish- with pests and diseases. At the best of reduced by building new silos and better ing quantity. If Western waste could be times, farmers face the curse of the Red roads and providing more refrigeration, halved and the food distributed to those Queen in Alice Through the Looking- but those things are expensive. The Afri- who need it, the problem of feeding 9 bil- Glass ( A slow sort of country! Now, here, can Development Bank is nancing a sev- lion people would vanish. you see, it takes all the running you can do, en-year programme to reduce waste by But it can’t. Western spoilage is a result to keep in the same place. ). Predators 3% a year. Given the scale of the losses, of personal habit and law. Education or wage a constant war on plants, and if farm- says Divine Njie of the FAO, who worked exhortation might make a di erence, but ers do nothing the output of a new seed on the scheme, we were surprised at the extent of waste is partly a re ection of will decline by a percentage point or so ev- how modest the targets were. But 3% a prices: food is cheap enough for consum- ery year. This is why new seeds are needed year adds up to a 20% reduction in waste ers not to worry about chucking it out, all the time. over seven years, a good start. and prices seem unlikely to rise by There are signs that the burden of dis- There is likely to be more of this sort of enough to change that attitude. ease may be increasing. Rothamsted Re-
The Economist February 26th 2011 A special report on feeding the world 92 These problems are onerous, but most their edglings. Any disruption to the sea- are probably tractable. Climate change is sonal rhythm tugs at the web of life. For ex- not. Global warming upsets the world’s ample, in parts of Mozambique where vil- water cycle, increases the burden of pests, lagers cultivate maize on the ood plain of desiccates soil and reduces yields. In 2010 the Zambezi river, the rainy season now the world got an unpleasant taste of what begins later, so the crop is sown later, short- climate change might bring. During the ening its growing period. summer the jet stream (air currents at 7,000-12,000m above sea level which af- Out of synch fect the winds and weather) changed its In 2009 Oxfam, a British charity, asked course. That seems to have been linked to thousands of farmers in a dozen countries the catastrophic oods in Pakistan and what worried them most about climate huge forest res in Russia which help ex- change. Their biggest concern was not plain the big food-price rises in the second higher temperatures but disruptions to the half of last year. natural cycle. I know I am supposed to Agriculture is itself a big contributor to sow by a certain time or date, said Mo- climate change. According to the Intergov- hammed Iliasuddin, a farmer in Bangla- ernmental Panel on Climate Change, farm- desh. That is what my forefathers have ing directly accounts for 13.5% of green- been doing. But then for several years the house-gas emissions, and land-use temperature and weather just does not changes (often cutting down jungle for seem right for what we have been doing elds) are responsible for a further 17.4%. traditionally. I do not know how to cope That adds up to almost one-third. with the problems. Agriculture is responsible for between The day of the locust When the International Food Policy Re- half and two-thirds of emissions of two es- search Institute (IFPRI) tried to work out pecially toxic greenhouse gases, methane also o set the bene ts of rising carbon-di- the impacts of climate change on the main and nitrous oxide. These stay in the atmo- oxide concentrations. Plants eat CO2, so if cereal crops, almost all its results suggested sphere for years, absorb a lot of radiation there is more of it in the atmosphere, pho- that yields in 2050 are likely to be lower and, weight for weight, have many times tosynthesis should increase and yields than they were in 2000, sometimes much the impact of carbon dioxide. So even if rise. But no one knows by how much. lower. Almost half the forecasts showed nothing else were happening, farmers Climate change also a ects the rhythm yield reductions of 9-18% by 2050. One would be under pressure to cut emissions. of the seasons. Winters arrive later or came up with a drop in rainfed-maize But a lot else is happening. An increase spring earlier. Rainy seasons become shor- yields of 30%. The most vulnerable crop of 2°C in global temperatures, says Hans- ter, milder or more intense. All living turned out to be wheat, with the largest Joachim Braun, the head of CIMMYT’s things depend on the heartbeat of season- losses forecast in developing countries. wheat programme, could cause a 20% fall al change. In spring, caterpillars time their The Indo-Gangetic plain, home to a sev- in wheat yields. This would exceed any emergence to coincide with the bud burst enth of mankind and purveyor of a fth of possible gains from warming in areas cur- of trees; birds start nesting when they can the world’s wheat, is likely to be especially rently too cold to grow crops and would feed those newly emerged caterpillars to hard hit. 7 Doing more with less The only reliable way to produce more food is to use better technology I T IS 7am at Kabiyet Dairies in the emerald hills of western Kenya. The dairy is ve miles down an almost impassable track, opened its doors. Laban Talam, a 30-year-old villager, has a smile on his face. He farms just under a Kabiyet Dairies is only one agricultural success story among many. Brazil, by in- vesting heavily in research, has turned it- and you would think milk would turn to hectare on a hillside overlooking the dairy. self into the rst tropical farm giant, joining butter long before it arrives. Yet the place is Two years ago he was scratching a living, the ranks of the temperate-food super- heaving with farmers waiting for their pro- supplementing his earnings from one cow, powers such as America, Europe and Can- duce to be tested, carrying it in pails on a native longhorn, with odd jobs outside ada. It did so in a single generation, thanks trucks, on the backs of motorbikes or on farming. Now he has ve cows, three of mainly to big commercial farms. Vietnam, their heads. The dairy opened only 18 them Holsteins who give twice as much through policy changes (especially freeing months ago and may seem basic, yet it has milk as the native breed. He rents extra up small-scale private agriculture), turned just struck a deal to sell milk to an interna- land from his neighbour, has rebuilt his itself from one of the world’s largest im- tional processing plant in Nairobi. Farmers house, grows pineapples for export and porters of rice into the world’s second-larg- get 26 shillings a litre, more than twice has installed a biomass pump. His children est exporter. what they were paid before the dairy go to a private school. So it is possible to grow more food, 1
10 A special report on feeding the world The Economist February 26th 2011 some of the barriers. Since 2008 African food production per person has been ris- ing for the rst time in decades. Rwanda and Malawi have begun to export food (admittedly in Malawi’s case thanks to massive and una ordable fertiliser subsi- dies). For now Africa is still a net food im- porter, but a recent Harvard study for the presidents of East African countries ar- gued that it could feed itself in a genera- tion. Even if that proves optimistic, Africa could surely increase food production by more than 1.5% a year. We didn’t know how the Green Revolution would come to Africa, says Mr deVries. Now we do. The second main source of growth will Time for an e ciency drive consist of spreading a tried and tested suc- cess: the livestock revolution . This con- 2 more e ciently, on both a regional and a head of crop research at the Alliance for a sists of switching from traditional, open- national scale. But can it be done on a glo- Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the big air methods of animal husbandry, in bal scale, which is what is needed to feed 9 problems in Africa were prices and invest- which chickens and pigs scratch and root billion people? If so, how? ment. Farmers were getting too little for around the farm, eating insects, scraps and Because of the constraints described in their produce and no one was doing any all sorts of organic waste, to closed bat- the previous section, there will not be big research into African crops such as sor- tery systems, in which animals are con- gains in food production from taking in ghum and cassava. Now prices are high- ned to cages and have their diet, health new land, using more irrigation or putting er a bene t to producers, at least and the and movement rigorously controlled. This more fertiliser on existing elds. Cutting African crop problem is being solved. entails huge losses in animal welfare, and waste could make a di erence (see box in New semi-dwarf sorghum has three times European consumers are reacting against previous section), but there are limits. The the previous yield, and genetic research the system. But there are also gains in pro- main gains will have to come in three has shown how to control cassava’s great ductivity and sometimes even in welfare, ways: from narrowing the gap between scourge, viral disease. by reducing losses from diseases and pred- the worst and best producers; from spread- The problem now is to get those im- ators that in traditional systems can be dis- ing the so-called livestock revolution ; proved seeds to the farmers. Around Kabi- tressingly high. and above all from taking advantage of yet, Western Seed Company, a small out t new plant technologies. that develops its own varieties of maize for Animal spirits The huge gap between the best and smallholders, doubled production in 2010 Improving livestock farming is important worst producers in roughly comparable and still sold out two months early. It is one because of meat’s growing share in the farming areas shows the scope for im- of 45 seed companies set up with AGRA’s world’s diet. Meat consumption in China provements. Both eastern and western Eu- backing, and Mr deVries reckons they will more than doubled in 1980-2005, to 50kg a rope are good for growing wheat. Yet west need 100 to meet prospective demand. At year per person. Between now and 2050, European farmers achieve yields of up to 9 present only 10% of Kenya’s farmers are us- meat’s share of calories will rise from 7% to tonnes per hectare, whereas east European ing new seeds, but Mr deVries hopes that 9%, says the FAO; the share of dairy pro- ones get just 2-4 tonnes. The discrepancy is by 2015 the gure will have risen to half. duce and eggs will rise more. much wider than di erences in incomes or When India began its Green Revolution Livestock matters for many reasons. It soil quality might suggest. in the 1960s, it had 388km of paved roads provides nancial security in poor coun- Or take the example of maize seed. Ac- per 1,000 sq km of land, and only about a tries, where herds are often a family’s sav- cording to Pioneer, a big seed company, quarter of its farmland was irrigated. Ethi- ings. It can a ect people’s health: new in- central Ghana has some of the best maize opia now has just 39km of roads per 1,000 fectious diseases are appearing at the rate land in the world, yet only 3% of the coun- sq km, and less than 4% of its land is irrigat- of three or four a year, and three-quarters try’s seed is the hybrid kind that can take ed. So the remaining problems in Africa of them can be traced to animals, domestic full advantage of it. In contrast, Brazilian are vast. Moreover, says Don Larson of the and wild. Avian u is just one example. land is less good, but 90% of its seeds are World Bank, farming in that continent is in- Livestock also plays a part in global warm- hybrid ones. The country is now the trinsically harder to change than in east ing. Much of the methane in the atmo- world’s third-largest exporter. If Ghana Asia because it is more varied. In east Asia, sphere one of the worst greenhouse gas- bought more hybrid seeds, it could pre- if you invent an improved rice variety, ev- es comes from cattle belching. sumably achieve something closer to Bra- ery farmer for hundreds of miles around Since the 1980s livestock production zilian yields. can use it because the land and climate are has far outstripped that of cereals. World Why don’t the laggards catch up? A much the same. In Africa, soil and climatic meat output more than doubled between good place to look for an answer is Africa, conditions are much more diverse and 1980 and 2007. Production of eggs rose the part of the world that has most con- farmers a few hundred yards apart may from 27m tonnes to 68m over the same spicuously failed to feed itself over the past need di erent seeds. period. Some countries have done better 50 years. Five years ago, says Joe deVries, But better technology is removing still. India has the world’s largest dairy 1
The Economist February 26th 2011 A special report on feeding the world 112 herd. Its milk production trebled, to 103m feed, producing an annual net gain of 150 One is that some countries still lag behind. tonnes, over a period when global milk eggs. And selective breeding has made her An example, surprisingly, is Brazil, which output increased by half. Brazil increased more economic to keep. Battery chickens has just one head of cattle per hectare an its production of chickens vefold in 1987- used to need 4kg of feed for 1kg of eggs; unusually low number even for a country 2007 to become the world’s largest export- now they need only 2kg. with so much land. Roberto Giannetti da er. Most spectacularly, China raised it out- Moreover, it is almost impossible to Fonseca, of the São Paulo industry federa- put of both eggs and milk tenfold. scale up a farmyard operation: there are tion, says Brazil should be able at least to For sheer e ciency, there is little ques- only so many insects to eat, and so many double that number which could mean tion that battery systems do a better job hens one family can look after. And to either doubling beef production or using than traditional methods. A free-range hen breed the most productive hens which half the area to produce the same amount. scratching around might lay one or two convert their feed most e ciently into eggs Carlos Sere of the International Live- eggs a week. Feeding her costs nothing, giv- and are most resistant to disease, you need stock Research Institute thinks traditional ing a net gain of 50-100 eggs a year. A bat- large ocks. systems could borrow some of the meth- tery chicken will lay six eggs a week. She So there are two reasons for thinking ods of closed battery-farm systems nota- might cost the equivalent of 150 eggs to that the livestock revolution will continue. bly better feeding (giving a small amount 1 Our daily bread Bringing wheat up to scratch F OR the past decade maize has been the seed companies’ favoured crop. Re- search spending on it runs at $1.5 billion a produce wheat hybrids, but it takes more trouble and expense. However, wheat is now the new fron- bigger wheat plants by speeding up the rate of photosynthesis. This is the process plants use to convert carbon dioxide into year, four times that for wheat. And it tier of plant technology. Graham Moore organic materials, using a catalyst called shows. Maize yields in 1990-2008 rose by of the John Innes Centre in Norwich is tar- rubisco. Rubisco is unusual. Its catalytic 1.8% a year, close to their long-term aver- geting part of a chromosome called Ph1 rate is exceptionally slow and it is not age; wheat yields increased by less than which ensures wheat genes pair up cor- good at distinguishing between CO2 and half that, half their historic average. rectly. Ph1 gives wheat’s genome its stabil- oxygen. So instead of using CO2 to build Wheat needs more research. It is the ity but has to be switched o to make it sugars and getting rid of oxygen, which is most nutrient-rich of the world’s cereals easier to slot in new genes. It then has to what happens in photosynthesis, it some- and the most widely planted crop. It is be switched back on again, otherwise the times uses oxygen, does not build up the also the staple most vulnerable to climate plant will mutate unpredictably. Mr sugars and gets rid of CO2 (a process called change. A few thousand commercial spe- Moore has found that bathing the genetic photorespiration). If rubisco could be per- cies are carefully grown and preserved. material with a substance called okadaic suaded not to catalyse photorespiration, But hundreds of thousands of older vari- acid (a toxin that occurs in mussels) en- plants would grow more vigorously. eties and wild relatives are left to the vaga- ables Ph1 to be switched on and o . There are three ways to do that. One is ries of land-use change, global warming to use more and better rubisco. A second and chance. This is a worry because some Built-in Growmore way is to tinker with the proteins that in- of the most desirable characteristics of At the same time Mr Moore’s colleague, uence rubisco, such as rubisco activase, plants taste, drought- and pest-resis- Giles Oldroyd, is investigating how some which has produced promising results in tance originally came from the wild gene plants, such as legumes (peas and beans), tobacco plants. Third, it might be possible pool, which will be needed again one day. make their own fertiliser, in the hope of to manipulate the environment inside the Wheat is physiologically di erent transferring this trait to cereals. Bacteria in leaves of the plant so rubisco catalyses from maize in two main ways, making big the nodules of leguminous plants’ roots photosynthesis more reliably. Some genetic improvements harder to achieve. convert soil nitrogen into ammonia, the plants, such as maize and sugar cane, have First, its genes are arranged in pairs of feedstock of nitrogen fertiliser. The plants special cells in which to capture CO2. The three, not single pairs, as with humans. shelter the bacteria and use the ammonia Gates Foundation is nancing research to That makes the wheat genome enormous, they make in ways that are encoded in try to breed those characteristics into rice far larger than that for maize (or people). their genes, so in principle the genes could which, like wheat, lacks this extra cell. Second, the reproductive parts of the be transferred to other plants. Since fertil- It is a long shot, but by 2050 wheat wheat plant are close together, so wheat isers represent a third of the input costs of plants could be making their own fertil- tends to self-pollinate. In contrast, the wheat, enabling it to make its own nitro- iser, as well as having acquired desirable male tassels of maize are a foot or more gen would o er dramatic savings, though genetic characteristics from other plants away from the female cob and are easily Mr Oldroyd concedes that this may be a and being larger and more productive. blown by the wind to other plants. So 30- or 40-year project. Whether that is enough to overcome maize readily produces hybrids, which Meanwhile, scientists at the Wheat many people’s horror of genetic engineer- tend to be more vigorous. It is possible to Yield Consortium are trying to produce ing remains to be seen.
12 A special report on feeding the world The Economist February 26th 2011 2 of animal feed makes a big di erence to ( Frankenfoods ), but that it allows faster the weight of range-land cattle) and the in- and more precise breeding. troduction of new breeds for better yields Imagine the genetic material of plants (as Kabiyet did by switching from long- as a vast library, with billions of books. horn to Holstein cattle). This library has no catalogue, and none of The second reason for expecting further the books has an index or table of contents. gains is that recent genetic analysis could It is still possible to discover what is in the improve breeding dramatically. About a library by reading every volume. That is third of the livestock revolution has come roughly what plant breeders have done in about through selecting and breeding the the past, painstakingly planting hundreds best animals. Another third comes from of varieties of a single species and discov- improved feeding and the remainder from ering traits by breeding numerous genera- better disease control. In the 1940s and tions from them. 1950s breeding relied on the careful record- Genetic marking is the equivalent of ing of every animal in the herd or ock; in giving every book a title, table of contents the 1970s on arti cial insemination by the and index and with much greater speed best sires; and in the 1980s on embryo and accuracy than any librarian could transfers from the best females into ordin- manage. Monsanto has a corn chipper ary breeding animals. which takes a small amount of genetic ma- New genetic analysis now promises to terial and generates a DNA pro le of hun- bring in another stage, says the FAO’s Hen- dreds of maize seeds simultaneously in ning Steinfeld. It allows breeders to select seconds. It leaves the seed alive, so breed- traits more precisely and thus speeds up ers, having mined the computer data from breeding by reducing generational inter- Cheap, cheap this and every other seed in Monsanto’s vals: if you know which genetic traits an vast library, can go back to a seed they like animal has, there is no need to wait several fore mistake a mild spell in January for and breed from it. It is possible literally to generations to see how things turn out. spring. The answer, it seems, is by turning nd one plant in a billion. This will not happen everywhere. o a gene after a certain period of cold Such gains are likely to snowball. In Europeans and to some extent Ameri- weather. This process is nely adjusted, so 1997 Monsanto introduced a variety of cans are increasingly in uenced by wel- in Sweden the plant switches o the gene corn resistant to various pests. It fully con- fare concerns. They jib at con ning ani- later than one of the same species in south- trolled four of 15 common above-ground mals. The European Union has banned ern England. corn pests like corn borers, cutworms and certain kinds of cages, and California is fol- At the same time the price tag on gather- stinkbugs, and partially suppressed three lowing suit. But, so far, people in emerging ing genetic data is now much lower than it more. In 2004 the company introduced a markets, where demand for meat and ani- used to be. Gary Atlin, a maize breeder at successor that controlled nine of the 15 mal products is growing fast, are less con- CIMMYT, reckons that whereas a couple above-ground pests and seven of the eight cerned about such things, so the next stage of years ago the cost of identifying a single that lived in the soil. The 2010 version con- of the livestock revolution will mainly be gene in a single plant was $2, now it is trolled nine above-ground pests and seven concentrated there. about 15 cents. That is still too high for in the soil, and suppressed three more. many breeding operations, but work now At the moment the genetic evolution is GM and after being done jointly by CIMMYT and Cor- just beginning. The genomes of most im- This will make some di erence but the nell University should cut this to $30 per portant crops have been sequenced only change likely to generate the biggest yield million genes. This is Moore’s law for fairly recently, and that of wheat is only gains in the food business perhaps 1.5-2% plants, says Mr Atlin, referring to the partly done. There are only a handful of ge- a year is the development of marker-as- rough rule that computing power doubles netically modi ed crops. Commercial sisted breeding in other words, genetic every two years for the same price. The rms have concentrated most of their ef- marking and selection in plants, which in- cost of genetic identi cation will soon stop forts on only one or two traits controlled cludes genetically modifying them but being a serious constraint. by individual genes, such as disease resis- also involves a range of other techniques. The public debate on plant genetics fo- tance. But the future, argues Giles Oldroyd This is the third and most important source cuses almost entirely on the pros and cons of the John Innes Centre, lies in traits con- of growth. (mostly cons) of genetic modi cation trolled by multiple genes and genetic Until recently we knew little about putting a gene from one species into anoth- pathways , that is, interactions between how plants function, how they perceive er. A gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus groups of genes. heat and cold, how they ower, and so on, thuringiensis, for example, when spliced The most important of these is yield. says Caroline Dean of Britain’s John Innes into maize, makes the plant resistant to her- Over the next 40 years yields need to rise Centre. That is changing, thanks to greater bicides; this enables farmers to plant by around 1.5% a year to feed mankind ade- understanding of plant genetics as well as maize, spray the crop with a weedkiller quately. Maize, which has had by far the to a dramatic fall in the costs of gathering and end up with a eld of nothing but most genetic research, is the only crop genetic information. maize. In Europe it is illegal to plant such whose yield is growing by more than that. Ms Dean has worked out, for example, maize. The biggest advantage of genetic se- If genetic selection can be extended to how plants remember the length of time lection, however, is probably not that it wheat, rice and soyabeans, that should go winter has been going on and do not there- makes it possible to grow transgenic crops a long way to feeding the world by 2050. 7