World’s harvested cereal

Only in sub-Saharan Africa do we find credible evidence that cereal (and to a lesser extent food) output has failed to keep abreast of population growth, partly because of the speed and volume of that growth itself (Basu, 1984). But in all other world regions food production has kept ahead of population increase. Since the early 1980s farmers have often switched out of cereals towards more remunerative food (and non-food) crops.

Diets have generally become more diverse. Recent progress in raising per capita food production has been-and continues to be-greatest in the world’s two most populous regions, i.e. the Far East and South Asia. Moreover, the expansion of global trade in food means that inter-regional transfers now play an increasing role in moderating changes in per capita food consumption. Even sub-Saharan Africa has had its dismal recent food production performance significantly offset by increased food transfers from outside. So, several pivotal neo-Malthusian assertions regarding the relationship between population and food during the recent past can be firmly rejected. In turn, this makes it easier for us to construct a more tolerable-if far from perfect-vision of the future.

The average level of world per capita food production (and consumption) in the year 2020 will probably be fairly similar to the level which applied around 1990. However, as we have repeatedly stressed, this will be entirely compatible with rises in per capita food consumption in most regions. Virtually all of the increase in world population in the period to 2020 will occur in regions with lower levels of per capita food consumption. Other things being equal, over time this will tend to bias downwards any simple (and therefore rather misleading) measure of global per capita food availability.

As we have seen, demographic growth has become the increasingly predominant cause of the expansion of world food production. This trend will continue. Using cereals as a rough proxy for food in general, it is reasonable to expect that between 80 and 90 per cent of the rise in world food output over the period to 2020 will be due to increased demand generated by population growth (Ehrlich, 1968). Our judgment is that general demographic, socio-economic and political conditions in sub-Saharan Africa may be so difficult that there will be little change-perhaps even some deterioration-in average levels of per capita food consumption there.

Given no unforeseen huge calamity, the world’s farmers will certainly be able to meet this volume of demand. To do so the average global cereal yield will have to reach about 4 tons per hectare-a feasible target on the assumption of a continuing linear trend. There may also have to be a modest expansion of the world’s harvested cereal area-through some mixture of increased multiple cropping, reduced set aside and cultivation of new land. World agriculture will certainly see a steady rise in fertilizer use.

By 2020 global applications of synthetic nitrogen will probably have doubled. The world’s irrigated area will also continue to expand-especially in the Far East and South Asia. Global irrigation capacity in 2020 will still be well above 40 hectares per thousand population. And, of course, there will be further new varieties of food crops with higher yields. In the future, as in the past, a multitude of other factors will interact to raise world agricultural productivity.

But, in particular, we can expect that there will be greater and greater emphasis upon information-intensive farm management procedures. The decisions of farmers across a whole range of issues- e. g. water use, soil quality, nitrogen up-take-will become increasingly tailored to the requirements of individual fields. For example, sometimes this will involve detailed study of high-resolution satellite photographs; other times farmers will be better interpreting subtle differences and changes in the colors of their food crop leaves.

Returning to the regional level of analysis, it appears inevitable that there will be a growing future mismatch between the expansion of food demand and food supply. Inevitably, therefore, the international trade in food will greatly increase. The world seems set to have two major food exporting blocs (recall that for most of the period since the Second World War there has been only one). The recent rivalry between the traditional cereal exporters of North America and the EU will continue (being eventually joined and complicated by countries in eastern Europe and the FSU).

Notwithstanding GATT agreements and the existence of the World Trade Organization, we can confidently expect many more agricultural trade wrangles between these two exporting blocs in the coming years! A major, long-term rise in world food prices might ease this rivalry. The issue of future price movements is hard to fathom. But the last hundred years of generally falling international grain prices suggest that such a sustained price rise is unlikely to occur (Gastil, 1989).

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