FAO forum discusses how to feed the world in 2050

Agriculture must become more productive if it is to feed a much larger world population while responding to the daunting environmental challenges ahead, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf told 300 experts from around the world at a two day forum discussing policy responses to the impacts of climate change on agriculture in Rome the other week. The conclusions of the Forum will contribute to the debate and outcome of the World Summit on Food Security, to be held in Rome on November 16-18, attended by Heads of State and Government from FAO's 192 Members. The FAO identified six key issues for debate, covering; global food production; technology; the special challenges of sub-Saharan Africa; climate change and bio-energy; investment; and trade. Many of the key policy issues and questions identified in background papers for the Forum are relevant to setting the debate about the future of the CAP in a global context.


‘The challenge is not only to increase global future production but to increase it where it is mostly needed and by those who need it most’, the FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf told the Forum on How to Feed the World in 2050. He warned that

world population is projected to rise to 9.1 billion in 2050 from a current 6.7 billion, requiring a 70 per cent increase in farm production over the next 40 years

world population is projected to rise to 9.1 billion in 2050 from a current 6.7 billion, requiring a 70 per cent increase in farm production over the next 40 years, which would need to come mostly from yield growth and improved cropping intensity rather than from farming more land. Climate change could reduce potential output by up to 30 per cent in Africa and up to 21 per cent in Asia, and improved water management would have to be a priority. Food production would face increasing competition from the biofuel market which, he said, ‘has the potential to change the fundamentals of agricultural market systems’, with the production of biofuel feedstocks set to increase by nearly 90 per cent over the next 10 years.

Key policy issues identified by FAO

Short briefing papers on the six key challenges3 were provided for the Forum, (based on 17 detailed papers discussed at an expert meeting convened by the FAO in June). These ‘issues briefs’ provide a useful summary of the FAO perspective on key issues and raise discussion points for each policy area. Some of the most relevant points are summarised below.

Global agriculture towards 2050

Raising overall food production by 70 per cent by 2050 means almost doubling production in developing countries. Ninety per cent of the growth in crop production globally (80 per cent in developing countries) is expected to come from higher yields and increased cropping intensity, with the remainder coming from land expansion (almost all in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America). A decline of around 8 per cent of arable land in the developed countries would be offset by a 12 per cent expansion in developing countries, where pressure on renewable water resources from irrigation would remain severe. Discussion points for the Forum included:

  • Should the focus be on increasing local food production, or on increasing access to food and stimulating rural development?
  • Will countries be able to tackle water problems by encouraging improved efficiency in water use, or by developing innovative systems for trading water rights?

The technology challenge

Yield increases of 100 to 200 percent have been achieved for major cereals (wheat, rice, maize) since the late 1960s, but large and economically exploitable yield gaps remain in many places, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Most private sector research (41 per cent of the total) tends to be focused on the requirements of commercial farmers in well-developed regions. Public sector R&D is still dominant in developing countries, where it is more focused on basic research and the improvement of staple food and minor crops. While public investments in agriculture R&D in the Asia-Pacific region (driven by China and India) more than doubled from 1981 to 2000, investments in sub-Saharan Africa only grew at an annual average rate of 0.6 per cent over this period, and actually fell during the 1990s. Discussion points for the Forum included:

  • How can agricultural R&D funding be mobilised to put in place appropriate technologies to help agriculture adapt to and mitigate the potential impacts of climate change?
  • What kind of regulatory and approval systems and public-private partnerships are needed to ensure full use of technologies that promise a win-win combination of enhancing productivity and sustainably managing natural resources?

The special challenge for Sub-Saharan Africa

In sub-Saharan Africa, some 30 per cent of the population are estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger or malnutrition, and the population is projected to more than double by 2050. Cereal yields, fertiliser consumption and the proportion of irrigated arable land are only a fraction of those in the rest of the world.

Climate change and bioenergy challenges for food and agriculture

The interrelated challenges of achieving global food security, adapting to and mitigating climate change, and meeting growing demands for energy cannot be addressed in isolation. Climate change will adversely affect food security in developing countries, particularly Africa, and increase the dependency of many of these countries on food imports. Agriculture and forestry currently contribute, and could contribute more, to mitigating climate change by acting as carbon sinks. Currently, agriculture accounts for roughly 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Most emissions from agriculture (74 per cent of the 14 per cent) and most of the technical and economic mitigation potential from agriculture (70 per cent) are in developing countries. Production of biofuels has tripled since 2000, driven largely by policy support measures in the developed countries. Biofuels currently account for 0.2 per cent of total global energy consumption, 1.5 per cent of total road transport fuels, 2 per cent of global cropland, 7 per cent of global coarse grain use and 9 per cent of global vegetable oil use. These shares are projected to rise over the next decade. Discussion points for the Forum included:

  • Where are the key synergies between food security, adaptation and mitigation and what are the tradeoffs between land use for food, bioenergy and carbon sequestration? Are low carbon growth agricultural strategies compatible with agricultural development/food security strategies?
  • What should be done to ensure that biofuel development is actually pro-poor?

Non-distorting support measures to farmers

The monetary value of total OECD support to farming has been more or less stable, but the ratio of producer support to the value of production declined from 40 to 29 per cent during the twenty years up to 2007. Over the same period, decoupled payments rose from 9 per cent to 32 per cent of total support, while commodity-based payments fell from 82 per cent of the total to 55 per cent, reducing the aggregate trade-distortion of OECD agricultural support. Developing countries and households are not affected uniformly by distorting OECD policies owing to selective trade preferences and different net import or net buyer structures.

A key challenge for policy-makers is how to shape and design support to farmers in both developed and developing countries to meet their separate national objectives without hurting farmers in third countries

A key challenge for policy-makers is how to shape and design support to farmers in both developed and developing countries to meet their separate national objectives without hurting farmers in third countries, while at the same time promoting global food adequacy and food security, and minimizing trade and market distortions. Discussion points for the Forum included:

  • What forms of non-distorting support to farmers, in both the developing and the developed countries, can meet future food economy challenges, and do smallholder farmers in developing countries require specific support to become more productive and competitive?
  • Could decoupling of support be expanded more evenly among OECD countries, and linked to maintenance of agricultural production ‘reserve’ in high-income countries?
  • Given the continued levels of support to farmers in developed countries, could OECD countries offer compensatory financing for agricultural growth enhancing measures to low income countries? Should OECD countries limit publicly supported agricultural insurance to deal mostly with extreme and unpredictable agricultural risks that cause market failures, and leave other risks to be covered by the private sector?


Growth of the population active in agriculture has outstripped growth of agricultural capital stock in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The share of total official development assistance going to the agricultural sector fell from 17 per cent in 1980 to 3.8 per cent in 2006, and aid to agriculture decreased by some 58 per cent in real terms.

Supporting voices on both sides of the Atlantic

The FAO emphasis on technology for sustainable production is echoed this week by the Royal Society in a report examining the role that publicly-funded scientific innovation (and intellectual property reform) could play in addressing the needs of poor people in developing countries, including subsistence farmers. The Royal Society calls on the Government to provide £200 million a year for ten years to support neglected areas of research, including new methods of crop management to increase yields and minimise environmental impact, and improving crop varieties by both conventional breeding and genetic modification. In a recent article on food and security Hillary Clinton emphasised that the Obama administration sees chronic hunger as a key priority of US foreign policy and supports agriculture-led economic growth.


  1. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, World Summit on Food Security
  2. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, High-level expert forum on ‘How to feed the world in 2050’, 12-13 October 2009, Rome
  3. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, Issue briefs on: Global agriculture towards 2050; The technology challenge; The special challenge for sub-Saharan Africa; Climate change and bioenergy challenges for food and agriculture; Non-distorting support measures to farmers; Investment
  4. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, Technical papers from the Expert Meeting on How to Feed the World in 2050
  5. The Royal Society, Reaping the Benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture, 2009
  6. The Guardian, ‘Seeding a Safer World’, 16/10/2009


03 Nov 2009




The Institute for European Environmental Policy coordinates CAP2020. It is an independent not for profit institute which undertakes research in a number of policy areas including agriculture and rural development.