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The United Nations recently reported that, with global food prices rising, food shortages will likely emerge in developing countries at the end of this year and into 2013. And with today being World Food Day, we must get serious about one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time: feeding a global population that is expected to grow nearly 50 percent and top 10 billion people by the year 2050.
It is possible to feed a rising population, one that is demanding more calories and nutrients. But to do so, policymakers must embrace technology and trade, the two forces that are powerful enough to meet the formidable challenge ahead.
New technology is the key to modernising farm production. With state-of-the-art methods of planting, land management, crop production, and animal husbandry, it is possible to increase yields while minimising the environmental footprint.
Witness the tremendous increases in crop yields over the twentieth century in Europe and North America. These regions were able to adequately feed their people, and even export food to others, all while using a steadily diminishing amount of land under cultivation over time.
In the twenty-first century we are now seeing improved yields in the developing world. Some of the most extraordinary gains have come in Africa and southeast Asia. There we find farmers leveraging the efficiencies of plantation-scale agriculture, coupled with the productivity enhancements of drought-resistant technologies, to boost yields of rice, fruits, cooking oil, and other staple crops.
But this transformational power of technology must be linked to increased global trade. It does no nation any good to improve its production if it creates a surplus that can’t be sold in other countries. This is why policymakers must focus on removing barriers to trade.
The UK understands the importance of agriculture trade. UK farmers only produce a little over half the food consumed by the population, with the rest made up by imports from continental Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Despite this, some environmental activist groups, like Greenpeace and WWF, are hostile to rapidly scaling up agriculture in the developing world, believing it to be unsustainable. As such, they are hoping to limit the use of yield-enhancing technologies like gene splicing. Some even hope to block some foods produced in poor countries – like beef, fish, vegetable oil, and others – from the markets of the wealthy West.
This is shortsighted. The only truly unsustainable course is one that limits agricultural yields and blocks trade. Such a path ensures that millions of people will go hungry.
True sustainability will arrive when the millions of small farmers in developing nations are empowered to fully modernise their agriculture systems, and they can follow the same path as the rich nations of Europe and North America. Technology and trade will make a sustainable planet a reality.
Nick Schulz is DeWitt Wallace fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of From Poverty to Prosperity.
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