More research, more food

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The growing demand for food, especially in developing countries, and a few silly side shocks, resulted in a global food crisis in 2007. This saw several countries put measures in place to limit exports and ensure local food supplies. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), at one stage more than 39 countries had regulations limiting exports.

It was suddenly realised food security no longer depends on someone, somewhere producing the products – during periods of food shortage the only available supply may be the food produced locally. In South Africa we were lucky because we had good crops in the past few years. However, the growth in demand from neighbouring African and other countries resulted in very low maize stocks in the run-up to the new season harvest.

Usually, when enough grain is produced for local consumption, prices tend to move nearer to export parity levels. If products have to be imported to meet local shortages, prices tend to move to export parity levels. If we want to feed the growing population in SA and Southern Africa in the coming years, we’ll have to substantially increase local food production. But the area available for agriculture is shrinking due to urbanisation and the failure of farming enterprises on farms given to the ‘previously disadvantaged’.

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Therefore, increased food production in SA will have to come from higher production from the existing resource base. This is possible, as US figures show. In the US, total production increased by 170% from 1948 to 2009. This was caused by a 150% improvement in productivity.

A recent US study shows that the main reason for the improvement in productivity was the application of new technology to farming. It found a strong relationship between public sector research and development spending and the growth in productivity.
And it concludes that the US will have to increase research and development spending in real terms if it wants to feed its own population in future.

In South Africa, government expenditure on agricultural research and development has decreased over time. There are signs that SA product prices are showing an upward trend compared to global prices. This coincides with the decrease in public sector research and development spending. Currently researchers at our academic institutions spend more time trying to get research funds than they actually spend on agricultural research.

Dr Koos Coetzee is an agricultural economist at the MPO. All opinions expressed are his own and don’t reflect MPO policy. Contact Dr Coetzee at [email protected]. Please state ‘Global farming’ in the subject line of your email.