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How to Feed the World Without Starving the Planet is a $15 Billion Question

The writer is Chair of the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (CoSAI)

A man selling fresh produce in a green market in Skopje, Macedonia. Credit: FAO/Robert Atanasovski

WASHINGTON DC, Aug 23 2021 (IPS) - A population of more than 9 billion people, hotter temperatures, decaying ecosystems and increasingly severe natural disasters. That is what our world is facing by 2050 because of climate change.

Even before the addition of some two billion people, the world still struggles to ensure enough food for all, with around 700 million people going hungry worldwide today.

An ever-growing population demands an intensification of agriculture to provide greater amounts of food if we are to avoid the spectre of an even greater hunger crisis.

In low-income countries, where investment in intensification is most needed, less than five per cent of agricultural output is spent on innovation, accounting for $50 to $70 billion. Of this, only seven per cent of investment is dedicated specifically towards more sustainable forms of intensification.

Therein lies our problem. Without new ideas, methods, and innovation, intensification means expanding agriculture onto finite uncultivated lands, such as rainforests, and placing an even greater burden on essential resources like water.

This tension between sustainability and productivity is the dilemma at the heart of our twin hunger and climate challenges, both of which demand a solution, but neither of which can be tackled alone. Solving this dilemma is the answer to a $15 billion question.

A new study has revealed an annual investment gap of US$15.3 billion to fund the research and technologies that can help farmers worldwide produce more food without eating up more natural resources.

By increasing our current levels of investment by at least 25 per cent, and channelling it into targeted areas for maximum impact, we can help alleviate global hunger and climate change at once.

But investing our time, energy, and money smartly and efficiently requires understanding which existing practices already work, where there are gaps in our knowledge, investment, and research, and how best we can fill them.

Crucially, the research also shed new light on the areas where investment can have the greatest impact on productivity while minimising the environmental footprint of food and agriculture.

For example, by investing in new technologies that allow farmers to use water more efficiently, it is possible to increase crop yields while bringing down agricultural water use by 10 per cent by 2030. These kinds of technologies can help increase profits, reduce food prices and save farmers – and the planet – water.

The clear benefits of improving the efficiency of water use for agriculture warrant an additional investment of $4.7 billion, which is all the more critical given that only seven per cent of existing investments target environmental outcomes.

Secondly, investing in better training and learning services for smallholders in developing countries, would provide more equitable access to the latest agricultural knowledge and support.

More knowledgeable and efficient farmers will then be empowered to produce more safe and nutritious food, potentially lifting as many as 140 million people out of poverty and hunger.

Currently, around half of the private sector’s investments into developing countries focus on agricultural inputs such as seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers. Complementary public investments in technical assistance would equip farmers to deliver healthier and greener food for their communities.

Finally, investing in smallholder finance will meet the unmet demand among farmers in developing countries for more capital with which to acquire the technologies and systems for a more efficient and sustainable agricultural intensification.

Investing into new and emerging financial mechanisms for agriculture offers the unique proposition of providing critical lines of credit and finance for farmers while also incentivising more sustainable practices, through green and blue bonds, or payments for ecosystem services.

For example, an additional $6.5 billion a year by 2030 would be enough to subsidise the uptake of innovations that would bring down greenhouse gas emissions to deliver a mitigation trajectory in line with the Paris Agreement.

There is no escaping from the problems posed by the future. As the population of the world grows, so too do the pressing challenges of climate change and hunger. But investors should not settle for solving one problem without addressing the other and should look to the agricultural innovations that make decisive action on both fronts possible.

With smarter investment in new agricultural technologies and policies we can feed the world without harming it, addressing our dual climate and hunger problems at once, and providing a healthier and greener world for future generations.


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