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Today’s food price spikes are the tip of the iceberg

By Frank Rijsberman - posted Tuesday, 9 October 2012

It is reassuring to see the depth of recent public commentary and concern in response to anticipated poor crop yields and food price increases due to drought and erratic weather across many of the world's breadbasket countries.

The 2007/8 food crisis is still fresh in the minds of those who witnessed its devastating effects – making an additional 75 to 80 million people hungry – and we are all anxious that history does not repeat itself.

Experts from across the agricultural production chain – farmer organisations, government officials, think tanks and the private sector – have all, from their various standpoints, spoken out about the vital need for policy reforms to avoid the next global food crisis. Their arguments have ranged from discouraging producer nations from introducing protectionist export bans to calling for the US to reconsider its current biofuels policy. China and the US have also strongly affirmed their plans to invest in Africa, in an effort to kick-start the continent's economic engine, a topic related to the central theme of a conference I will be addressing in Canberra this week.


Here I argue there is one more critical policy that has been neglected for several decades: investment in agricultural research.

Scientific research into crops, pests and diseases has resulted not only in higher yields, but also a more nutritious and more resilient food supply. In the last 60 years, innovations in agricultural research have helped to feed billions more people on the planet. Over the same period, in the developed world, food has become a small percentage of a family's income expenditure, only 10 percent for US families. We have come to expect cheap and abundant food – and had become complacent.

Advances in agriculture do not come easily, or quickly, however, and the outlook for our future food supply looks bad. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 77 percent of the 50 percent more food we must grow by 2050 will need to come from increasing crop yields -rather than the expansion of land under cultivation or higher intensity of farming. In the developing world, families continue to spend 80-90 percent of their income on food. While for most families in the developed world, these increases will have only a marginal effect on what they can afford to eat, for many millions of families in the poorest part of the world, such a price increase may mean one meal less a day. As simple and tragic as that.

The progress we have made to find ways to produce more food sustainably is increasingly under threat. Yield increases are slowing down to one percent per year now from around three percent in the 1960s. Not enough to meet rising demands. Yet over the last 30 years, foreign aid to agriculture, for example, has dropped from more than 20 percent to less than seven percent of the total budget.

The crop losses and associated price increases we face today are only the tip of the iceberg. We are struggling to keep up with an increasing population, increasing meat consumption as a result of growing incomes, increasing demand for biofuels to meet rising energy consumption, a degraded natural resource base with millions of acres of crop land eroded or saline, and the impacts of climate change such as increased droughts like we are experiencing today.

While private sector research addresses the needs of private sector farmers such as in Australia, it does not cater to the needs of poor small farmers in developing countries. Publicly-funded agricultural research continues to prioritise the staple crops of the developing world – rice, cassava, sweet potatoes and sorghum, among others – and the unique disease challenges and growing conditions which poor smallholder farmers face.


My organisation, the CGIAR Consortium, is the largest publicly funded international agricultural research partnership, and the scientists across our fifteen research centres have worked for more than forty years to create and promote crop varieties to meet these challenges. New rice varieties bred by the International Rice Research Institute, for instance, can now withstand complete water submergence for up to 17 days and still provide good yields, saving vulnerable livelihoods throughout Asia, who are often at risk from the effects of devastating monsoons. And thanks to the breeding of a nutrient-rich orange flesh sweet potato by HarvestPlus, partnering with organisations such as Australia's Flinders University women and children in Uganda and Mozambique are now receiving double their previous intake of vitamin A and have access to the sturdy, drought-tolerant crop for 10 months of the year.

We must reinvest in agriculture generally, and in agricultural research in particular, as a proven formula for reducing hunger and poverty, and we must reaffirm its place at the centre of the global political agenda. Fortunately we see that the food price crisis of 2007/8 has yielded a positive response. Support for agriculture is increasing. From a very low base investments are beginning to come back up, but there is still a long road to go. The food price hikes we see today are a timely reminder that achieving a food secure future for all is still the greatest challenge facing humanity in coming decades.

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Frank Rijsberman will be discussing these issues and more at the Crawford Fund’s annual conference “The Scramble for Natural Resources: More Food,  Less Land?” on 9-10 October in Parliament House, Canberra.

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About the Author

Frank Rijsberman has been Director General of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), since 2000. He is also a professor at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft and at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. Rijsberman earned his PhD in water resources planning and management from Colorado State University.

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