U study: more research needed to keep down food prices

Food prices will go up in the future without further research and development, according to new paper published by U researchers.
  • Becky Ernst
September 13, 2009

Without increased investment in agricultural research and development, food will become scarcer and prices will continue to soar, according to a new paper released by University researchers.
The paper, co-authored by professor of applied economics Phil Pardey and grad student Jason Beddow , was published in the Sept. 4 edition of Science Magazine. It gives evidence that agricultural productivity — that is the amount of food output compared to resource input — has been growing at a much slower rate in the last 19 years in comparison to the growth from 1961 to 1990 .
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the world’s population will hit 9 billion by 2043 . This, coupled with decreasing productivity growth, poses a serious problem because food supplies will be unable to keep pace with the world’s ever growing demand, Pardey said.
The world’s poorest populations will take the hardest hit, Pardey said, because they spend 70 to 80 percent of their income on food. Americans only spend 10 to 15 percent of their income on food.
Pardey, who has worked and traveled with various organizations committed to combating hunger, has a personal stake in the problem.
“I stare that hunger straight in the face,” he explained of his travels to third-world countries, “and it’s unnerving.”
Growing incomes are also taking a toll on the world’s food supply as people eat more meat based products, including eggs and milk. The production of meat and meat based products requires a greater portion of basic crops like corn and wheat to feed animals.
Pardey and Beddow note in the paper that there’s a strong correlation between investment in agricultural research and development and rising agricultural productivity.
Unfortunately, that correlation usually happens over the span of several decades.
“Even if we start cranking up [research and development] spending today, we’re not going to see an effect from that for several decades,” Pardey said.
For instance, it takes seven to 10 years just to develop a new wheat variety, let alone get it approved by the government or implemented by farmers, Pardey said.
For modern politicians, the wait may be too long.
“Unfortunately, it’s a hard sell,” Pardey said.
The long-term investment is hard to promote when no one will know the results of a study for decades and whether those results will be useful, Beddow said.
“Reversing a problem like this has this hazard of we don’t know what’s happening in 30 years, let alone now,” he said.
Over the past 50 years, yields for basic crops like corn, rice, wheat and soybeans has more than doubled, according to the article. Questions arise as to whether the earth can continue to sustain the human population and are compounded by the concept that there is a limit to how much food the earth can produce.
An additional paper co-written by Pardey and Beddow expands on the Science Magazine article, titled “Mendel versus Malthus: Research, productivity, and food prices in the long run,” which makes reference to this worry.
It was Thomas Malthus who said, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man” in 1798.
More than 200 years later, Malthus’ prediction has yet to come true and Pardey doesn’t believe it will anytime soon.
He explained that there is evidence that humanity is far from hitting the earth’s maximum capacity for food production.
Instead he maintains that the slowdown in productivity growth is “not because we’re hitting a biological ceiling, it’s because we’re not investing in [research and development.”

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