How Intelligent Agriculture Can Feed a Hungry World

26 October 2018

Food security [is] a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s definition of Food Security

Alarming reports on global food security have recently been released by several international public and private bodies. Led by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), five UN agencies collaborated in September to release The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, highlighting their research which showed that the number of undernourished people in the world began rising in 2014 after falling for many years. Then in October, the Global Harvest Initiative, a consortium of agribusinesses, released its Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report for 2018. It showed that, without a sharp acceleration in yield improvements, lower-income countries will become increasingly dependent on food imports, and face growing risks of food shortages, in coming decades.

Thomas Malthus pioneered this sort of warning in 1798, noting that since population grew exponentially and production grew arithmetically, poverty and starvation were inevitable. History has proven him wrong again and again, as human ingenuity and industry defeated the seemingly inexorable coming scarcity. But Malthus played an important role despite his misguided forecasting. By outlining the nature of the threat, he helped innovators come to grips with the problem and design measures that would keep everyone supplied. The recent reports on food security could play a similar role.

It’s clear that if growth in population and incomes occurs as forecast, without improvements to the global agricultural system, shortages will follow. Even if improvements in production continue, but remain concentrated in the currently leading agricultural producing countries, logistical and financial issues could lead to severe local shortages in rapidly growing low-income areas.

For supply to meet demand, advancement on multiple fronts is required. Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, agricultural businesses suffer from a dearth of capital, partly due to a lack of information to support investment. Outside of developed countries, farm and food data generally remains uncollected, unorganized, and unanalyzed. Gro Intelligence’s products increasingly address the information part of the agricultural-production conundrum. We bring the power of the latest data science to bear on the difficult questions of how to produce and distribute adequate supplies of food.

The following sections analyze food-security trends in several major consuming and producing regions of the world. By looking at these basic statistics, we can begin to see some potential solutions to the looming food-security problem and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The charts show the surplus or shortfall of calories and protein grams produced versus demanded through 2050. We’re only considering calories and protein derived directly from corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, and cassava in this analysis. While there are numerous other sources of both, these crops especially dominate modern production methods. They provide the most well-understood paths to global food security.

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Northern America
South America
China
Sub-Saharan Africa
Conclusion

Northern America

Northern America, including the United States and Canada, has securely occupied the top rank of agricultural producing regions for the last hundred years. Modern agricultural techniques, such as the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), precision agriculture, and widely adopted mechanization, all made their first major impacts on food production in the US. As a result, Northern Americans, along with Europe, experience the lowest levels of undernutrition, less than 2.5 percent, and severe food insecurity, at 1.4 percent, in the world. However, even in these developed regions, food insecurity has risen from 1.2 percent in 2014.

Huge surpluses of both calories and protein allow Northern Americans to enjoy the highest per capita meat consumption in the world as well, reaching highs in the early 2000s and declining since then. It appears possible that a ceiling on how much meat people choose to consume has been reached. Livestock animals inefficiently use as much as seven kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of meat, so it is truly a luxury in an environment of scarcity.

Furthermore, Northern America diverts fully a third of its potential food calories into the production of fuel ethanol. From the charts below, we can see that Northern America produces about 12,000 extra calories and 600 extra grams of protein per person per day beyond what its population demands. The surplus goes to exports, ethanol, and meat production.

South America

Over the past few decades, South America has moved decisively from calorie deficits to large and growing surpluses. This feat was achieved with tremendous coordinated effort from governments and private industry. South American soil needed to be significantly amended to raise its pH, as soils were too acidic. Roads and infrastructure needed to be built in order to transport harvests to export terminals. Farmers imported mechanical equipment and began planting the land. This process took many years. The South American example should serve as a warning to sub-Saharan Africa—modernizing agriculture can’t be done overnight.

In another possible similarity to the African situation, intensive cultivation in South America came at a steep, and rising, environmental price. Farmers plowed up millions of hectares of rainforest for soybeans and corn. The destruction has slowed lately, but continues.

South America made enormous strides as a continent since 2005, lowering undernourishment from 7.9 to 5.0 percent. But severe food insecurity has risen lately, going from 5.5 percent in 2014 to 8.7 percent in 2017, largely due to the humanitarian disaster underway in Venezuela.

China

Analysts expect Chinese population growth to continue slowing and turn negative over the next few decades. As crop yields continue to improve, per capita balances will move into the black for both calories and protein. China currently imports vast quantities of protein meal from the Western Hemisphere to service its booming meat industry. Despite a current national net positive protein balance, meat production’s unavoidable inefficiency has led to Chinese dependency on soybean exports from Northern and South America. Recent tariff disputes have put that massive trade deficit in the spotlight as China tries to source protein from alternate producers.

As China’s economy boomed over the last few decades, undernourishment declined as well. From a level of 15.5 percent in 2004-06, the prevalence fell to 8.8 percent in 2015-17.

Sub-Saharan Africa

With booming populations in developing countries practicing traditional agriculture, sub-Saharan Africa faces a daunting future without significant effort and investment. On the one hand, surplus regions of the world clearly can produce sufficient calories and protein for Africa’s people. On the other hand, import dependence on that unprecedented scale would pose a serious threat to both food security and survival. Supply lines from the Western Hemisphere to sub-Saharan Africa would be too long and complex to be fully reliable, and the consequences of disputes or errors could quickly be fatal.

It’s abundantly clear that the region needs to launch a titanic effort to “South American-ize” itself and get much closer to self-sufficiency over the next 30 years. Governments and private industry must immediately pursue every technique of modernization, including land reform, mechanization, GMOs, soil amendment, precision agriculture, farmer education, and better use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Although efforts are already underway, they are uncoordinated and desultory. The charts below make the outcome of the current lassitude coupled with projected population growth obvious: disastrous dependency on foreign production at best, famine at worst.

Sub-Saharan Africa holds the unwelcome title of world leader in undernourishment and severe food insecurity at 23.2 and 29.8 percent respectively. Both measures have deteriorated since 2005.

Conclusion

In some regards, this analysis may pessimistically overstate the sub-Saharan African problem. We’ve only considered the five biggest crops, and we’ve assumed that things will continue as they have agriculturally. The production forecasts here essentially use linear extrapolation, which almost certainly will be wrong. We can see from history that sharp productivity transitions occur, and the African farm industry could change even faster than the South American one did due to improvements in technology since then.

But there’s no question that progress needs to accelerate drastically right away. Gro Intelligence’s application of cutting-edge data techniques can open the door for skittish yet eager capital to move into sub-Saharan African agriculture and finance the next great wave of innovation. Without adequate data, investment will remain sluggish, and it won’t be enough to build the industry that Africa needs. It’s a heavy lift, and Gro can help get it started.

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