By Catherine Bertini and Dan Glickman
Catherine Bertini is the 2003 World Food Prize Laureate and was the executive director of the U.N. World Food Program from 1992-2002. Dan Glickman served as secretary of agriculture from 1995-2001. They are co-chairs of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Agricultural Development Initiative.
Americans now know that living in the world’s breadbasket — where the most advanced agricultural technologies have created some of the highest crop yields — does not necessarily immunize them from the vulnerabilities of depending on Mother Nature.
More than three-quarters of U.S. corn and soybean crops have now been affected by record drought — the worst dry spell since the 1950s. The United States is not the only country feeling the heat. India is experiencing a 22 percent falloff in vital monsoon rains and Brazil went through its most severe drought in a half-century.
Corn prices are already up 50 percent from just a month ago and are expected to continue rising. Economists are warning that consumers around the world will begin to see hikes in all grain and meat prices in coming months.
Extreme weather that puts agricultural productivity at risk is unsettlingly frequent. Farmers and ranchers around the globe will likely have to spend more time, energy and resources planning for these dramatic climactic swings. As if that challenge isn’t enough, food production must increase an estimated 60 percent over the next 40 years to feed future populations on virtually the same amount of arable land and water available today.
Lucky for us, there are solutions to these daunting problems. First, we should increase support for the agricultural researchers, in the U.S. and around the world, who are developing remarkable new drought and flood tolerant crop varieties. The results of this research will be essential if the agricultural sector is to continue to meet food demand in the face of weather variability.
Yet technological gains can’t hedge against severe weather or fully increase global food production if they are not deployed sustainably on arable lands that are now underused. In much of the world, particularly Africa, the majority of farmers use the same seeds and agricultural techniques that were used decades ago. Less than 1 percent of farmland in Sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated today, and less than 50 percent is planted with improved seed varieties. As a result, grain production per capital in Africa has actually decreased over the past 30 years.
An essential second step would be providing these farmers access to improved seeds, pesticides and fertilizers to boost productivity, spurring economic growth in poorer regions and helping to feed our growing global population.
Growing more food also means storing more food. Approximately 30 percent of crops in the developing world are lost before they are brought to market because of limited infrastructure. We must invest in post-harvest storage facilities — so gains in agricultural production lead to more food being available to consumers at the market.
Third, we should equip those working in agriculture, especially women, with the know-how to use newer technologies. Women work alongside men, performing hard agricultural labor — in some countries, they make up more of the agricultural labor force — but they still have far less access to agricultural inputs and training than men.
Closing this gap would have a real impact on food production. If women had the same access to resources as men, they could increase their yields by 20 percent to 30 percent, raise total agricultural productivity in developing countries by 2.5 percent to 4 percent and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 percent to 17 percent.
International leaders are increasingly aware of the importance and potential of raising productivity through these solutions. The U.S. government, the G-8 and the G-20 have put global food security high on their agendas in the past few years. But we need to continue to upgrade our investments and work with policymakers and private enterprises around the world to support market-oriented and environmentally sustainable farming that can jump-start economic growth in developing countries, lift millions out of poverty and increase global agricultural production.
It would be a triple win.
As Americans, we have decades of experience in building the world’s most productive agricultural system. We’ve developed technologies and tools that have revolutionized the farming industry. Even today, however, our farmers — like their counterparts around the world — are not immune to the uncertainties and risk, especially those caused by extreme heat and drought that affect food and agricultural production worldwide.
Our only chance in the face of this grave challenge is to equip every farmer around the world with the tools and knowledge they need to succeed. Only then will we be able to sustainably and reliably feed the world.