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The Right Policies to Feed the World while Preserving Natural Resources

Featured Article

By Dr. Margaret Zeigler
Global Harvest Initiative 

Margaret ZeiglerHow can we feed the estimated nine billion people that will be on our planet by 2050, and do so in a way that preserves water, soil, air, forests, and environmental systems needed for our survival?  As I wrote with Dr. Roberto Lenton on The Chicago Council’s Global Food for Thought blog, extreme weather in 2012 caused disruption for global food systems. Serious climate challenges compound the impact of our growing population and rising incomes in developing and transition countries on the global food supply.

The Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) and the Water for Food Institute of the University of Nebraska co-sponsored a panel of experts on March 20 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, to highlight these challenges and to propose emerging solutions.  Entitled “Too Hot, Too Wet, Too Dry: Building Resilient Agroecosystems,” the panel session gathered agriculture, climate, and development leaders who provided insight into one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center began the panel with an overview of historic climate and drought conditions in the U.S. and highlighted the extreme drought in 2012.   In response to this overview, Paul Weisenfeld, assistant to the administrator in the USAID Bureau for Food Security, described how the agency is focusing efforts through international development, research, technology, and private-sector partners to create the right package of interventions for resource-poor farmers.  Weisenfeld emphasized USAID’s research in three areas: climate-resilient varieties of seeds, fighting pests and diseases, and sustainable intensification. USAID is also linking U.S. humanitarian and development programs – bringing development assistance to build resiliency in areas regularly in need of humanitarian aid – especially in vulnerable East and Southern Africa maize systems, Ethiopian maize, the Sahel region of West Africa, and the Indo-Gangetic plain.

Panelist Manish Bapna of the World Resources Institute projected that by 2050, the world will need a 64 percent increase in food calories and a major increase in food availability, matching in the next four decades the incredible growth of the last four decades. At the same time, 70 percent of global water is dedicated to agriculture: without significant increases in water-use efficiency, demand could grow by 45 percent by 2030. Agriculture is tied to 24 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and occupies 38 percent of the Earth’s land mass outside of Antarctica.  Bapna discussed the need to consider some changes in dietary consumption patterns combined with increased efficiencies in production to address these challenges.

GHI logoRepresenting the private sector value chain perspective on the panel, GHI Board chair and Elanco senior director for global market access, Claudia Garcia, shared her personal story of growing up in Mexico with infrequent access to protein and beef.  She contrasted her life experience with that of her son in the United States and his access now to a full range of protein in his diet.  This story illustrated the projection that by 2050, an estimated three billion people will enter the middle class and demand dietary change, especially including more protein from dairy, meat and fish sources.

Garcia described the need to embrace innovation in order to allow more countries to produce more food, more efficiently. The impact of policies that do not embrace technology will be on the environment: countries will produce more food, but will not necessarily become more productive, with negative effects on water and land.

The panelists raised important points that are illustrated in GHI’s research focus—productivity along the agricultural value chain will help mitigate some of the impact on the environment as the world population grows and shifts its dietary demand.  GHI highlights five policy priorities that will boost this productivity along the entire food system value chain: investing in research, enhancing private-sector involvement, adopting science- and information-based technologies, improving and investing in development assistance, and facilitating trade.  Together, these policies are keys to unlocking the  solutions to increase agricultural productivity and food availability, while decreasing water and land use and other inputs to minimize agriculture’s environmental impact.

On March 20, 2013, in recognition of UN World Water Day, Global Harvest Initiative and the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska hosted two discussions on water, agriculture, and climate change. Watch video of the morning panel here.

Dr. Margaret Zeigler is executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative, a private-sector voice for productivity growth throughout the agricultural value chain to sustainably meet the demands of a growing world.

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