Extra billions can be fed, but who will pay the tab?

Tue Oct 25, 2011 2:18pm EDT
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By Carey Gillam

KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - In China, dairy cows revolve on carousels in synchronized milking; in Kenya, small farmers are planting a new high-yielding sweet potato; and in laboratories in Iowa, scientists play with plant genetics to create corn that grows well even in drought.

These projects, and scores more, are shaping a new century of agriculture. Whether it be cattle herders in sub-Saharan Africa or rice growers in rural Asia, farmers and ranchers need help to produce enough nutritious food to feed a population forecast by the United Nations to hit 7 billion on October 31.

The United Nations further predicts the population will grow to some 9 billion by 2050. With no increase in arable land, an already taxed supply of fresh water and fears of ongoing drought and harmful climate change, figuring out how to feed that many people is a top priority for both government and private interests.

But just as research, development and expansion of agricultural programs are most critical, the public dollars pledged to this effort remain a pittance of what is needed, and are in fact in danger of sharp decline, experts say.

"We are talking about adding 2.6 billion people between now and 2050. That is two Chinas," said Robert Thompson, who serves on the International Food & Agricultural Trade Policy Council and is former director of rural development for the World Bank.

In the 1980s, about 25 percent of U.S. foreign aid went to agriculture, but that fell to 6 percent by 1990 and was only about 1 percent last year, Thompson said. And the share of world bank lending going to agriculture is down from about 30 percent in 1978 to less than 10 percent, he said.

"We have to raise productivity," Thompson said. "I think we can do it all if we invest enough in research. But at the moment we aren't."

Moves by U.S. lawmakers to slash spending are threatening food security programs being set up in poor countries, and will likely lead other nations to similarly trim pledged agricultural development dollars, say experts in the field.   Continued...

<p>A view of a residential building in Shanghai in this file picture taken, March 18, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer</p>