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Gordon Conway: Four Steps to Feeding the World in 2050

A local market in Nigeria. World Bank/Curt Carnemark

Oct. 16, 2012

Focusing on innovation, markets, people, and political leadership is necessary to feed a growing population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050.


"Can we feed this world in the future?" It's a question on the minds of many leaders in government, science, and the development community today. The answer, Gordon Conway told an audience ahead of World Food Day, is yes – if we take action now to strengthen agriculture, particularly in developing countries.

The droughts that hit some of the world's largest grain-producing regions this year elevated both food prices and concerns about hunger and malnutrition around the world, now and into the future. The world faces the looming challenge of an expanding population that is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, from just over 7 billion today, while climate change is increasing uncertainty for farmers.

Ensuring a food supply that can meet the world’s future needs will take an increased focus on four areas, Conway, a professor of international development at Imperial College London, director of Agriculture for Impact, and former president of the Rockefeller Foundation, told a packed auditorium at the World Bank on Oct. 15. His areas of focus dovetail with much of the World Bank's work in agriculture today.

Inspiring Innovation

First, we need to focus on innovation, Conway said. Agriculture will need to meet that growing population’s nutritional needs using the same amount of land and the same amount of water used today, with less use of chemicals and nitrogen-based fertilizers. Doing that requires investing in research, increasing sustainable intensification of agriculture, and creating access to new technologies and processes that are effective, environmentally friendly, and equitable. Some examples Conway mentioned: microdosing techniques that localize fertilizer; intercropping that can add nitrogen to the soil naturally; and the creation of more nutritious crops through breeding and science.

The creation of a more nutritious sweet potato biofortified to combat vitamin A deficiency and scuba rice designed to withstand flooding are two successful examples of how investing in agriculture research is changing crops to meet the needs of today and the future.

Enabling Markets

Second, improving markets and market access for smallholder farmers is vital for lifting poor farmers out of poverty and increasing productivity, Conway said. Creating countrywide networks of markets and village-level agrodealers, selling seeds for example, can better connect growers with the markets that need their crops while also improving the farmers' access to supplies and information.

Local producer associations are already creating these enabling environments in some areas and helping them to secure fair prices for their crops. Government policies can help support these environments.

Supporting People

Third, supporting the people at the heart of the agriculture value chain is vital to the equation, Conway told the audience. Smallholder farmers, particularly female farmers, are important providers of nutritious crops for their families and for market. Helping them to produce higher yields – through research, access to markets, land tenure policies, microcredit and microinsurance – will lead to greater prosperity and more rural jobs as they grow into small businesses.

When you hear from youth in African countries, Conway said, they’re looking for careers that will provide for their families, not leave them at the subsistence level.

Building Political Leadership

Finally, political leadership is necessary – and often one of the greatest challenges. Conway cited Ghana, where the government has supported the creation of an infrastructure for investment in agriculture research, farmer education, and incentives that helped boost yields and improve rural incomes. It may be the first African country to reach the goal of halving hunger, Conway said. He suggests studying Ghana and how its policies have helped improve rural livelihoods and reduce hunger, and to learn from Brazil, Bangladesh, and Malaysia, among other countries.

That’s just the foundation. Governments also have to deal with subsidies, determining which are succeeding at raising rural incomes and which could be money better spent elsewhere, Conway said. The world also “desperately needs to move beyond the first generation of biofuels” and shift to such biofuel sources as algae and waste products, such the corn stalks left after food crops have been harvested, he said. “We need desperately more education and skills development,” and the health experts need to talk to agriculture experts to bring the solutions together, he said.

The World Bank's Work

Conway’s words echoed the World Bank’s efforts in food security.

Some of the problems we’re seeing today stem from a global neglect of agriculture in developing countries in the past, said Christopher Degaldo, a World Bank adviser in agriculture and rural development. The World Bank has been responding by increasing its agriculture investments. More than 90% of the World Bank Group's more than $9 billion in agriculture investments today goes to improving smallholder farmers’ productivity and market access to help solve those problems. It also works to raise standards for land tenure to help smallholder farmers.

The problem isn’t as simple as blaming biofuels, Degaldo said. It’s a complex, structural issue that reaches into government policies, investment in research, outreach to farmers, and education.

Michele McNabb, the president of Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa and a participant on the panel, also stressed the importance of focusing on markets and agricultural productivity together. Smallholder farmers are small-business people – the rural-urban link and the developing of food processing in the rural economy are both important to improving Africa’s agriculture and the lives of smallholder farmers, she said.

In his new book, “One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World,” Conway lays out the web of issues surrounding food supplies and a growing global population. He looks to how governments have dealt with agriculture and food crises in the past and discusses where they will need to focus in the coming years.

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