"How do we achieve food security in a world of growing scarcity?" That's the question posed in a new report, which explores how technology can help feed 9 billion people, without destroying the environment to do it.
The question is of growing urgency: Global population is set to bulge by 2050, food prices are already rising, soil and water are damaged by high-input farming, and climate change is set to exacerbate all of this. The report, from the International Food Policy Research Institute, estimates that yields for crops like maize, rice, and wheat are all set to drop if nothing is done. Wheat output could fall 18% to 36% by the middle of the century, for example.
The report looks at how 11 technologies could boost production, modeling their contribution to calorie availability, food prices, and trade flows. It focuses in particular on developing countries, where populations are rising fastest and where agriculture is less advanced. The technologies include no-till farming, precision agriculture, water harvesting, and heat- and drought-resistant plant breeding, among others.
No-till farming, which increases water retention and organic matter in the soil and reduces erosion, has greatest potential to raise yields, according to IFPRI. It could increase maize yields 20% and wheat by 22%. Precision agriculture, in which farmers use GPS surveys to pinpoint how and where to use water and fertilizer, improves rice levels 10% and wheat by 23%. In another example, breeding heat tolerant plants could boost maize by 31% and wheat by 17%.
In the end, however, irrigation may be what matters most—in all cases, the yields grow bigger still with better water systems. "Continued investment in irrigation (subject to cost considerations) should go hand in hand with technology rollout," the report says.
IFPRI also estimates how many fewer people will be at risk of hunger with each technology. Improve the plant's "nitrogen use efficiency" comes out best (12%), followed by no-till farming (9%), and more heat resistant crops (8%).
Of course, predicting anything for 2050 is impossible, and in fact, the report doesn't claim its numbers will pan out exactly. The point is to assess relative effectiveness: which technologies are likely to produce the best results for the money. Unsurprisingly, the report calls for more investment in agricultural research, more use of techniques like no-till and precision agriculture, and more money for irrigation.
The World Resources Institute also has some ideas for feeding the planet sustainably, as we wrote here.