What is in this article?:
- Ag production needs to increase by 70 to 100 percent
- Yield plateau?
- Significant production increase has precedent.
- Climate change could be a factor.
- Need for policies that allow us to manage overcapacity while avoiding dragging down prices.
A decade ago there was a lot of talk about a yield plateau because it appeared that the rate of increase in yields was decreasing. Today we are seeing record yields every couple of years and the seed companies are talking about things like 300-bushel per acre corn. We have been able to move corn yields up dramatically. It remains to be seen how quickly we can move beyond the gains of the green revolution when it comes to wheat and rice.
The next area of concern is Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This vast area of the world was bypassed by the green revolution and yields remained stable or falling at about 1 tonne per hectare. Part of the problem is the north-south orientation of the continent so farmers fall into a large number of climatic zones compared to areas that benefitted from the green revolution. Yield gains elsewhere will still leave SSA impoverished and dependent upon charitable aid unless research is done to improve the yields of indigenous crops that are already adapted to the local climatic conditions.
Given the degree of environmental degradation in many areas and the nature of small plots, attention will need to be given to sustainable, conservation-based agricultural techniques that build soil and enable farmers to provide for the nutritional needs of their families. Because SSA has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, it is extremely important that attention is paid to improving agricultural production at the household level.
The doubling of grain and oilseed output over the next 40 years in not dependent simply upon yield increases in the U.S. corn belt. Increasing yields by 1 tonne per hectare (national average U.S. corn yields are in the range of 10 tonnes per hectare) in developing nations would go a long way toward achieving food security for the current population and developing the ability to meet future population growth needs. Simply reducing post-harvest loss with basic, but effective, storage options would bring about an immediate improvement in production numbers. The adoption of locally appropriate technologies that protect soil, increase water retention, and increase total nutritional output of a farm can result in the needed yield increases in SSA.
Increased production can also result from increased acreage devoted to crop production. We are just beginning to see what can happen when agricultural areas in the former Soviet Union are brought back into production. Countries that once imported grain are now major exporters of wheat. In any one year they may face reduced production due to weather issues, but in the long-run they have the potential to significantly increase world production capacity.
Likewise, Brazil can increase its harvestable area in several ways. Farmers there can increase production through double and in some areas triple cropping, shifting current pastureland to cropland, rotating current pastureland between crops and grazing, and opening up new areas to production. It has been estimated that Brazil has the potential to bring an additional 300 million acres into production while still complying with current environmental laws.
As we look down the road 40 years from now, we are less worried about achieving an increase in production of 100 percent than we are concerned about how to manage all of this potential. We think it is important that we always have the proven potential to produce far more food than we need at any one time. We just don’t need to use all of it all of the time. Then, if a crisis comes we can bring the additional capacity online. The question is—are we willing to develop policies that allow us to manage that overcapacity so that we maintain its availability while avoiding dragging prices down with overproduction?