Game Changers for Farming


Plowed field with irrigation

© CIMMYT/H. Gomez

How will farming need to change to feed the world without destroying the planet?

Lots of people argue that it’s time to rethink farming, but they don’t all agree on what that rethink should look like. Should farmers apply more fertilizers and pesticides or adopt organic agriculture? Cut back on plowing or use high-tech soil sensors to optimize fertilizer use? Grow genetically modified crops or eschew them? The debate surrounding these questions can be highly polarized and emotional. In a new book, Food Security in a World of Natural Resource Scarcity: The Role of Agricultural Technologies, a team of researchers from IFPRI and partner organizations uses state-of-the-art modeling tools to look at specific farming practices and identify which of them hold the most promise for feeding the world sustainably.

As coauthor Mark Rosegrant, director of IFPRI’s Environment and Production Technology Division, explains, there is plenty of research on how agricultural research spending—in the aggregate—can raise productivity. “We wanted to get beyond the aggregate talk,” he says. “What are the specific technologies, and where do they work best?”


Based on a wide consultation, Rosegrant and the rest of the team chose 11 farming practices and technologies (see box). “We wanted to look at a wide range of technologies,” says Rosegrant, “not just high-tech, but also low-tech. We didn’t know what the results were going to be.”

The team evaluated these technologies to determine their effects on yields of maize, rice, and wheat, as well as on water use and nitrogen losses, by 2050 and compared these results with yields and resource use in 2050 if these technologies were not adopted quickly and widely. Using a crop model, they simulated the use of these technologies on 60-by-60-kilometer squares of farmland around the world. Finally, they fed the results into a global economic model to assess the implications for international food prices, cultivated area, and the number of hungry people.

The results were, in some cases, dramatic. The crop model showed that by 2050 no-till farming could increase maize yields by 28–30 percent. Nitrogen-use efficiency could increase rice yields by 34–35 percent. And heat-tolerant wheat varieties could increase yields by 10–20 percent.

But farmers should not limit themselves to one technology. “We’re going to need a whole basket of technologies,” says Rosegrant, “not just one or the other.” And when the team simulated the use of all appropriate technologies on the same land, the economic model showed that resulting higher production would have profound implications for future food prices and the number of food-insecure people. Used in combination, these farming practices and technologies could cut maize, wheat, and rice prices by nearly half and push down the number of hungry people by more than a third.

The greatest gains in yields and food security are projected to occur in South Asia and Africa south of the Sahara—where hunger is currently most widespread. And yield gains are similar under two different scenarios of climate change between now and 2050 for nearly all of the farming technologies.

But will farmers adopt these technologies? The study’s economic model already incorporates likely rates of adoption based on the technologies’ cost, complexity, and usefulness, says coauthor Claudia Ringler, deputy director of IFPRI’s Environment and Production Technology Division. “Not everyone will adopt,” she says. “It’s not realistic.”

Irrigation technologies like sprinkler or drip irrigation, for example, can be too expensive for smallholder farmers. Nitrogen-use efficiency embedded in seeds is still in development, but, says Rosegrant, “it has the potential to be big.” No-till farming, which promises strong yield growth, has already spread widely in North and South America and parts of Asia. The full yield benefits of no-till farming can take 5 to 10 years to accrue, however, and many farmers stop using this practice before reaching that point. And the practice has yet to be embraced by African farmers.


“Technologies can be a game changer,” says Ringler. “But they will only be successful if there are supportive policies.” This means that more extension services are needed to get the word out about these technologies—not just through traditional government extension agents, but also through information from nongovernmental organizations and private companies like seed suppliers. It also means that countries need to invest more in rural infrastructure like roads and improve farmers’ access to markets, so they can obtain needed inputs and get better prices for their output.

Feeding the world in 2050 will also require broader changes in the food system, points out coauthor Nicola Cenacchi, an IFPRI research analyst—steps like controlling waste, reducing consumption of resource-intensive foods, and strengthening trade in food commodities.


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