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.
While charitable foundations, nonprofit development groups and private-sector corporations are funneling billions into agricultural programs, without the heft of significant funding from the world’s wealthy nations, needs will go unmet, according to food and agricultural experts.
“There is by far not enough investment made,” said Claude Fauquet, scientific director at the U.S.-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, which is developing a cassava for Africa that is enriched with beta carotene.
“We estimate that already today there are 1 billion people in the world suffering from malnutrition,” said Fauquet. “This will not go down unless we invest more.”
The Danforth Center, which has a budget of about $4 million a year, will be asking its donors, including the U.S. government, for increased contributions in 2012, he said.
For decades, the world’s focus has been more on food aid — donating excess grains and other agricultural supplies to poor nations. Over the last few years, that focus has shifted toward better positioning poor farmers to feed themselves.
The goals include increasing food productivity, developing rural roads, building processing and storage plants, and broadening access to markets to provide higher incomes and long-term food security for people in poor countries.
The key targets are an estimated 600 million people who live in poverty in rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.
The need for improved crop productivity was underscored by a 2008 spike in food prices tied to production shortages. In July 2009 the United States pledged $3.5 billion over three years in funding for world food security programs. Another $18.5 billion was pledged by other wealthy nations.
But keeping the pledge is getting harder as the global economy has faltered and cuts hit U.S. and European budgets.
“We do have to keep up the effort to secure funding,” said Jonathan Shrier, acting special representative for Global Food Security at the U.S. State Department.
The World Bank is also overseeing a fund dubbed the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP). The United States is the largest donor, but Canada, Spain, South Korea, Australia, Ireland and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have also pledged funds that total $970 million.
But more than $400 million of the pledged dollars have not come in, including close to $300 million from the United States. A GAFSP report issued last month said several countries had to be turned away due to the shortage of funds.
“In terms of the global food security debate, agriculture is paramount,” said Emily Alpert, London-based senior policy manager for agriculture for ONE, an advocacy organization for development in Africa. “More funding is extremely critical for addressing poverty reduction and food insecurity.”
Alongside that effort, the administration of Barack Obama last year launched a “Feed the Future” initiative that is targeting 19 countries for agricultural development assistance.
U.S. officials are putting $10 million to $15 million in an irrigation system for 8,000 farmers in Tanzania, for example. And they are helping teach farmers in Kenya new crop production and management techniques and improving access to better seeds that have helped the farmers triple their incomes off “orange fleshed” sweet potatoes.
The U.S. program has also helped launch an insurance program for cattle herders in northern Kenya, and is helping fund development of heat- and drought-resistant corn and other cereal crops.
The program is considered a bright spot in global agricultural development but its funding is in doubt.
“We’re feeling good about the strategic planning process we’ve made. We think we can make a huge impact,” said Paul Weisenfeld, an assistant to the administrator of the Bureau for Food Security, which oversees the Feed the Future initiative.
“Our concern about budget cuts is if we back away it will potentially have an impact on donors worldwide. That is our big concern,” he said.
With the uncertainty surrounding the sustainability and expansion of government funding, private investments into agricultural research and development are rising.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and other charitable groups have committed billions of dollars for programs to improve the nutrition and yields of maize, sorghum, rice, wheat and other crops.
And many corporations have dived in. Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, and DuPont, also a major seed company and one of the world’s largest chemical concerns, have development projects under way to improve food security in Africa and elsewhere.
Drought-tolerant crops and crops that use fertilizer more efficiently are among the projects on the drawing board.
Earlier this month, DuPont announced a partnership aimed at training 1,000 African educators to work with youth in five African counties to teach them innovative farming practices.
“There is no silver bullet. We need to work together,” said DuPont Executive Vice President James C. Borel. “We collectively need to do everything we can.
“A handful of companies can’t be expected to carry the load.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall