Boost in Farm Output Needed to Feed World, Experts Say

February 14, 2001 United Press International

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 (UPI) – Wasteful and inefficient farming methods are threatening the natural resources on which the world's food supply depends, requiring a dramatic increase in agricultural production to close the shortfall, according to a study released Wednesday. The study, paid for by the World Bank, cited the stripping of soil, water pollution and the demise of plant and animal species as the biggest threat to the food supply. Satellite-provided data and digital mapping were used to scan Earth's "agro-ecosystems" in what researchers said is the first comprehensive look at the planet's capacity to provide food, goods and services. A thread runs through the inefficient practices still used by many farmers in developing countries, to the cost of food, and to poverty, the heads of the groups that sponsored the study told reporters. Because food is the biggest slice of the budgets of many of the world's poor – 70 percent of whom still live in rural areas – any step that makes cultivating a crop more efficient will reduce its cost and chip away at poverty.

"If we fail to control agricultural development, we will fail to reduce poverty successfully in reaching the Copenhagen summit goal to halve world poverty," said Robert Thompson, director of rural development for the World Bank in Washington. He was referring to the United Nations World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1995.

The report turns the tables on agriculture, which is often viewed as falling victim to environmental problems, by arguing that agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all fresh water used by humans and that some farming practices in both the developed and the developing worlds cause pollution. The excessive use of fertilizer provides two simple but significant examples: Its methane-rich fumes escape into the air and linger as one of the main heat-trapping greenhouse gas believed responsible for global warming, while runoff of nitrogen has into rivers and streams has left stagnant zones and harmed fish and plants.

The participants also suggested remedies – some surprising – for the huge spike in farming productivity that will be needed to feed a global population estimated to rise from the current 6 billion to 7.5 billion over the next two decades. More than 840 million people, nearly one-seventh of the world's population, are chronically malnourished while more than 1 billion do not have access to clean drinking water, according to the U.N. Population Fund.

The use of genetically modified seeds to produce higher yields of crops – tweaked to resist otherwise harmful pests - should be encouraged, said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, one of the organizations that co-authored the study. The agricultural economist made no mention of the controversy surrounding "GM" foods and their potential impact on human health.

Organic farming, a popular alternative to GM foods among the latter's opponents, may indeed serve that purpose as a "small-scale, niche-marketed" option in affluent societies, but experts said its benefits would not extend to many parts of the developing world, where the need for stepped-up farm productivity is pressing.

In Africa, Thompson said, most soil lacks enough naturally occurring organic material to make such an approach work. Noting his assessment that a doubling of current agricultural output over the next 50 years will be required to feed the developing world, the World Bank official said African farms could never reach that goal without the aid of chemical fertilizers and high-tech mechanization.

The report's other authors were researchers from the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based NGO that studies sustainable development and natural-resource management. Its partner in the study, the International Food Policy Research Institute, is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research is a body that advises governments on the impact of agricultural practices around the world; it is funded by the World Bank and the United Nations.

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