World Food Prospects: Critical Issues for the Early Twenty-First Century

22 February 2000
Public event


Andrew Bennett, DFID.


Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Director General, IFPRI.


This event looked at projections for the food and agricultural sectors for the next 20 years and discussed emerging issues from these projections.

1. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute, addressed a meeting at ODI on 22 February 2000. The meeting was chaired by Andrew Bennett, Chief Natural Resources Adviser at DFID.

2. Per Pinstrup-Andersen devoted the first half of his presentation to a summary of IFPRI's projections for the food and agricultural sectors for the next 20 years. The key points were:

  • Demand for grain would increase by 40% by 2020, and most of this would have to come from yield increases.
  • Almost all the increase to production required (690m tons) would come from developing countries, 25% of it from China and 13% from India. Contrary to some popular perceptions, China would essentially be self-sufficient in grain and would not disrupt world markets.
  • Roots and tubers were critical for the poor, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • A livestock revolution was underway, for meat as well as dairy products. The demand for feed grains would double by 2020, particularly for maize.
  • Though China would make only modest calls on world markets, net cereal imports by developing countries would double by 2020 to 190m tons.
  • Finally, food insecurity and malnutrition would persist. The number of food insecure people would fall only slowly, as would the number of malnourished children. Thus, the world would fail to achieve the targets set by the World Food Summit in 1996, of cutting malnutrition by half by 2015.

3. Per Pinstrup-Andersen then turned to a discussion of 'emerging issues'. He identified these as nutrition and food policy, the impact of low food prices, trade issues, agro-ecological approaches, and biotechnology.

4. With regard to nutrition and food policy, recent research had highlighted the importance of tackling micro-nutrient deficiencies, particularly those for iron. Increased food supply on its own was not enough, however, whether for micro-nutrients or general malnutrition. IFPRI research showed that 55% of all reductions in malnutrition between 1970 and 1995 could be explained by changes in women's education and women's status, with food availability accounting for 26% and improvements in health for 19%. Thus, the education and status of women were key factors. Conflict was also crucial. FAO data showed a strong correlation between child mortality and conflict.

5. With regard to prices, real prices for cereals were currently at their lowest ever level. They were likely to remain steady or to fall slightly to 2020, albeit with fluctuations caused by climatic and other shocks.

6. With regard to trade, a new WTO round for agriculture would start shortly. The key question was whether developing countries would benefit from globalisation. Issues for them to consider included the need for domestic policy reform, development of the agricultural sector, access to industrial country markets, the elimination of export subsidies in industrial countries, and a strong sanitary and phyto-sanitary framework.

7. Turning to agro-ecological approaches, the debate was often polarised, with some arguing that small farmers would only prosper with the application of high technology, and others arguing the opposite. In practice, small farmers needed both.

8. Similarly, with respect to biotechnology, it was important to propagate a balanced view. The area sown to genetically modified crops had grown dramatically, from 1.7m hectares in 1996 to 39.9m hectares in 1999. The area would probably decrease this year, because of consumer pressure, especially in the US, but a large increase could be expected in coming years, not least in China. Per Pinstrup-Andersen noted in passing that it was wrong to think that all the benefits of GM technology were captured by multi-nationals and seed companies. IFPRI research showed that half of all benefits went to farmers, with a further quarter to consumers.

9. In the general discussion which followed, a number of points were raised:

  • The bulk of the discussion was devoted to the likely future of small farms. Did globalisation and technical progress threaten the future viability of small farms? Or did they continue to have a comparative advantage over large farms? Per Pinstrup-Andersen thought that there was still a strong case to be made for the superior efficiency of small farms, at least if they were provided with infrastructure, appropriate technology, extension and credit. It was, however, difficult for this comparative advantage to be realised when large farmers benefited from subsidies, and when government investment was concentrated in peri-urban areas (for example to service livestock industries). It was noted that significant investment would be needed to help small farms in remote rural areas, for example through the provision of roads and other public goods. Clearly, this was an important research issue.
  • A related issue had to do with the increasing urbanisation of developing countries, with IFPRI data showing that urban populations would exceed rural populations by 2015. There were significant implications for the industrialisation of the food system, for the salience of food safety issues, and for the commercialisation of the agricultural sector. It was, however, important to remember that the pattern would not be uniform across countries. Africa would remain largely rural for the foreseeable future - which in turn could pose problems unless ways could be found to increase employment opportunities and the return to labour.
  • There was a discussion about the impact of the need to raise cereal production on biodiversity, and also about the pressure on common property resources, including fisheries. Would biodiversity and common property resources be eroded? Could steps be taken to help small farmers conserve these resources?
  • Finally, water was clearly going to be an issue. Water stress and problems of salinisation were occurring in many countries. Per Pinstrup-Andersen thought that a great deal could be achieved by better allocation of water. However, he agreed that the topic needed further research.

Concluding the meeting, Andrew Bennett noted that a substantial research agenda had been opened up. For DFID, the question of globalisation, agriculture, and rural poverty were now high on the agenda because of the decision to produce a new White Paper on globalisation. He looked forward to close collaboration with IFPRI and with UK research institutes on the emerging agenda.