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Mainstream, VOL L, No 33, August 4, 2012

Scenario of Agricultural Production

Thursday 9 August 2012, by Vinod Anand


There has been spiralling rise in foodgrain prices accompanied with food shortages in almost all the developing countries. There are billions of hungry people all over the world. There are many theses to explain and rationalise this haunting vision.
Robert Malthus propounded that population will grow till it outstrips food production, and then famines, wars and epidemics will intervene to restore the balance. Is the present or impending food crisis, the vindication of Malthus?

In 1950, the world’s population was about 2.5 billion; sometime in 1999, it crossed the six billion mark—a phenomenal increase of 3.5 billion in about half-a-century. It is estimated that the world’s population would reach somewhere between eight and 11 billion by 2050, depending upon what factors you take into account. It might be just over nine billion. That is, another three billion added in 50 years. These figures appear to suggest that it may indeed be difficult to feed everybody in the future.
How exactly has the foodgrain production grown in the past 60 years? In 1950, the world foodgrain production was 651 million tonnes. It increased by about three times to 1843 million tonnes by 2000 and further to 2075 million tonnes in 2007. Thus, between 1950 and 2007, the population increased by about 2.6 times but the grain production jumped up 3.3 times.

The impression of the Malthusian prophecy coming true arises because we find so many hungry people in the world—800 million at least, according to UN estimates. But if these food production figures are true, then why is there hunger? The short answer is: because food is not available equally to all. But that is another tale.
Some other economists also argue that in the future, food production will not be able to sustain the burgeoning population. Surely, there is a limit to how much the earth can yield. There is some truth in this. There is a limit to cultivable land, which is presently about 11 per cent of the 13.2 billion hectares of the total land area of the planet, the rest being taken up by forest, settlements, grasslands etc. There is also a limit to water. But the real question is not how much can be produced but how much does man need. If everybody was to start consuming as much as, say, the Americans consume, then obviously the earth will not be able to sustain it. At the current population of about 6.7 billion people, a US-level per capita consumption of 1046 kg would require for the world population nearly seven billion tonnes of foodgrain—three-and-a-half times the present production. The earth would become a wasteland by 2050. But the question still remains: can the earth feed an additional three billion people in the next 50 years? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. The reason is that the full potential of agriculture is yet to be realised in most parts of the world.

In the vast continent of Africa, the total harvested area under cereals is 98.7 million hectares, from which about 146 million tonnes of cereals are produced. In North America (US and Canada), the harvested area for cereals is 71 million hectares but the production is 398 million tonnes. They are producing 252 million tones more despite cultivating 20 million hectares less land. In other words, Africa has a vast potential to improve its agricultural production. A similar situation exists in various other parts of the world. This discrepancy is better measured by checking out yields per hectare of land. Thus, for every hectare of land, China produces 6265 kg of rice, while Nigeria just 1440 kg and India produces 3124 kg.

In general, this is a division between rich and poor countries. Cereal yield per hectare is about four tonnes in the developing world, while it is over six tonnes in the developed countries. It is not just cereals—in other crops too there is this vast difference. Vegetable production per hectare is just 10 tonnes in Africa and 9.6 tonnes in South-East Asia. Bit in North America, it is 26 tonnes and in Europe it is nearly 21 tonnes.

The reasons are basically that in the developed countries of the West, much more and better resources have been available to the farmers. If similar resources are made available to the farmers in India or Bangladesh or Gabon and Burkina Faso, there is no reason why they too will not increase the yield tremendously. And this in turn will provide the much needed food for their populations.

To achieve this would be to resolve the food crisis, as well as the epidemic poverty that grips most of the Third World. But it requires a monumental shift from the current path of development, and a reordering of priorities, both domestically and internationally. The ruling politicians have a pretty bad record in these matters. Perhaps, the current crisis will make the people force them to change.

The following Tables show the various data-set in respect of this write-up:

Table 1: World Population and Foodgrain Production

Year Population Billion Production Million Tonnes Availability Kg Per Capita
1950 2.54 631 248
1960 3.03 824 272
1970 3.77 1079 286
1980 4.45 1429 321
1990 5.29 1768 334
2000 6.12 1843 301
2007 6.60 2075 314

Source: UN Population Division and FAO

Table 2: Land under Cereals and Production

- Area Million Hectares Production Million Tonnes
Africa 99 146
North America 71 398
South-East Asia 53 199
Europe 118 404

The author, a well-known economist, was formerly placed at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla.

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