The time for countries and institutions to “go it alone” is past as economies become more integrated and intertwined, and public resources continue to dwindle, says agricultural economist Thulasizwe Mkhabela. Photo: Supplied
The time for countries and institutions to “go it alone” is past as economies become more integrated and intertwined, and public resources continue to dwindle, says agricultural economist Thulasizwe Mkhabela. Photo: Supplied

OPINION: The demand for food will increase as population grows

By Thulasizwe Mkhabela Time of article published Jun 12, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - We live in a dynamic world and the current Covid-19 pandemic has added impetus to this constant change. 


In the midst of this change, there remains one constant: people will continue to eat, thus the demand for food will increase proportionately with increasing population. 

By the year 2050, according to the United Nations’ population estimates, the world’s population would have reached 9.7 billion people. 

The projected population growth presents a formidable challenge to the global agriculture sector to produce sufficient food quantities to feed the masses. 

Further compounding this challenge is the plethora of adversities the agricultural sector has to surmount which include climate change and diminishing resource bases. The current coronavirus pandemic further complicates the environment within which the agricultural sector operates, rendering the production of adequate food a daunting task. 

Hence, the writing is on the wall that there will be a food shortage crisis if policy makers and other critical stakeholders fail to act accordingly. Therefore, the time is now for orthodox to meet orthopraxy when it comes to agricultural and food policy making the world over. 

It has been estimated that agricultural production has to grow by at least 70 percent over the next 30 years in order to keep up with food demand as the world population increases. It means that, in order to increase agricultural production, agricultural innovation has to increase. 

Over that past 10 to 15 years, agricultural production has increased because of agricultural productivity gains at the back of increased innovation, such as advances in genomics, information and communications technology (software and hardware), logistics and other technologies. For example, the advent of drone technology and computerised machinery and improved precision agriculture tremendously recently. 

The public sector, historically, has been the leading sector behind such advances and accounted for the bulk of agricultural research and development expenditure as part of creating an enabling environment in the agricultural sector. 

To illustrate this point, in 2011 global public sector research and development accounted for 55 percent  ($37.95 billion or R643bn) of the $69bn total. However, the picture has been changing markedly. Recently, constrained fiscal policies in many countries, including South Africa, have slowed public sector agricultural research and development expenditure growth. 

Developing economies, such as South Africa, have felt the shift even more as governments attempt to satisfy the multitudes of priorities with a finite and declining budget and increased debt pressures. 

This situation will worsen in the face of the current Covid-19 pandemic as countries battle to allocate more resources to dealing with the health crisis and its associated economic meltdown. 

The private sector has identified the research and development funding gap created by the public sector’s declining agricultural research and development spend. The private sector has increased investment in agricultural innovation resulting in new technologies and production techniques with immense potential to increase agricultural productivity. 

The desired increased agricultural production will not be met through increased area under agricultural production, but through technological gains since land is a finite resource and there are competing uses for the same land. Thus, whoever owns the required technologies will advance much quicker and stay ahead of the proverbial curve.

The gap in agricultural research and development expenditure created by the declining contribution by the public sector, and subsequent filling by the private sector, has its own dynamics. 

Privately funded research results in privately owned technologies and this has a negative effect on the vast majority of African farmers, including South Africa. Innovations produced from privately funded research and development are accessed on a user-pay basis and are, therefore, exclusionary in nature. 

Most African farmers are both smallholder and resource-poor producers thus can ill afford to access the commercial innovations. Moreover, most of the private sector agricultural innovations piggyback on publicly funded research of yester years. 

This rise in the privatisation of agricultural research and development has spawned numerous small and specialized research and development companies, mostly owned and staffed by former public agricultural research institutions. If this trend continues unabated, the majority of African farmers will be left behind, as well-off large scale; commercial farmers continue to prosper exclusively.

The dire picture painted thus far requires African countries, through their agricultural research institutions and universities to forge closer and more meaningful collaboration in order to leverage on each others strength and networks. 

African countries should compete less and co-operate more in order to reap the benefits of scale and scope in agricultural research and development. 

Furthermore, science councils in the agricultural innovation space should seek synergies rather than outright competition. 

Collaborations amongst research institutions are likely to yield positive results in syndicating recapitalisation of agricultural research and development. Most of the equipment used in agricultural research and development is highly specialised and expensive making it difficult for individual institutions to afford. 

Even where an individual institution can afford to procure certain high-tech and modern equipment, such equipment is often under-utilised, thus not justifying the sizeable capital outlay. The time for countries and institutions to “go it alone” is past as economies become more integrated and intertwined, and public resources continue to dwindle.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the groupexecutive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]

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