Agronomist confident demand for food will be met

With the global population ticking past seven billion last year and projected to hit nine billion by 2050, there’s been a growing chorus of warnings that mankind will not be able to feed itself.

Mike Millar

Mike Millar

With the global population ticking past seven billion last year and projected to hit nine billion by 2050, there’s been a growing chorus of warnings that mankind will not be able to feed itself.

Al Scholz offered a contrarian view on Thursday, while speaking at the Alberta Beef Industry Conference in Red Deer.

“I believe we’re going to easily feed the whole world by 2050,” said the Saskatoon agronomist, author and international consultant, who specializes in agricultural sustainability and food systems.

He offered several reasons for his optimism.

Scholz expects yields to rise in places like the former Soviet Union, where farming practices still lag behind North America.

In Kazakhstan, where Scholz worked as research agronomist for six months in 2010, conditions are ripe for a big jump in production as technology and management improve.

In fact, said Scholz, it’s been calculated that countries in the former Soviet Union are capable of doubling their ag output.

And in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s believed that production could triple.

Meanwhile, urban agriculture — food production in densely populated areas — is also on the rise.

“There are one million farmers today in large cities, mostly in the Third World, who are producing what’s estimated to be 15 to 20 per cent of the food required in the Third World,” said Scholz.

The feared food deficit could also be addressed through waste reduction, he said. Post-harvest food waste in industrialized countries has been estimated at 40 per cent, with losses occurring in the hands of retailers and consumers.

“The experts say that we could probably reduce food waste in our country, as well as the developing world, by 50 per cent by 2050.”

Advancing technology should also help ensure dinner plates around the world are full decades from now, said Scholz. He cited the positive impact of precision farming practices, improved crop genetics and more efficient irrigation systems.

Scholz acknowledged that a long list of books have questioned the safety and sufficiency of agricultural production, but these have generally not originated with producers or crop scientists.

“The thing about these book is they’re written by journalists. They’re not written by anybody with a good ag background.”

Scholz did offer some reasons for concern. He noted that wheat prices, when adjusted for inflation, have been in decline for more than a century.

“I’m not so sure that with the technology that we have and the innovation we have that this will change.”

And if it doesn’t, he continued, it will become increasingly difficult for an export-dependent country like Canada to compete against emerging producers.

“I think we’re going to have countries like Kazakhstan come in and eat our lunch on the commodity side.”

Producers here should instead focus on livestock and meat processing, suggested Scholz. That plays to our advantages, like abundant space and water supplies, and technological superiority.

On the crop side, a shift to niche products like bio-fuels, organic pharmaceuticals and fibre could present opportunities, he said.

Producers must also be conscious of the environmental sustainability of their products — something that’s becoming increasingly important to consumers and retailers.

The life-cycle environmental assessment of food is becoming the “new math of agriculture,” said Scholz, with consumers even able to scan bar codes with their smartphones to get a rating of a product’s environmental footprint.

He pointed out that despite the trend toward locally produced food, studies now suggest that transportation accounts for a relatively small percentage of products’ environmental impact. Production methods have been found to be a much more important factor.

“That’s good news for us,” he said of the Canadian agriculture industry.

The Alberta Beef Industry Conference is organized by a number of producer organizations. It started Wednesday and will wrap up today.