While being acutely aware as this new year begins of all the problems and difficulties facing the food processing industry in the twelve months ahead, looming large over the industry’s strategic planning must be how best to respond to the need for a dramatic increase in world production to satisfy demand several decades in the future. Few disagree with the basic facts defining what seems to be a formidable task — global population reaching 9.1 billion by 2050, up 2.3 billion, or a third, from the current total. As if that’s not challenging enough, population will mainly expand in the developing countries coincident with vast numbers leaving rural areas for urban centers where food is purchased rather than grown. On top of this powerful force comes rising incomes, a large share of which will be spent on raising the quantity and quality of food wanted.

That combination leads to estimates that world food production must expand by at least 60 per cent in the next four decades. Actually, the needed gain is nearly 80 per cent in the developing countries where most of the population growth will occur. Even before hands are wrung comes the knowledge that these estimates do not take into account potential use of grains for making biofuels. Most studies indicate this use of grains will continue to rise as a share of disappearance at least for the next decade, if not longer.

In pondering how such massive production increases are going to depend on rapid expansion in research aimed at increasing crop productivity, sight must not be lost of the mounting pressure in both developed and developing nations for this growth to be “green” or sustainable. This means expansion must occur without damage to the environment, while also assuring the “long-term productivity, sustainability and resilience of food and agriculture systems worldwide.” That quote is from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which has been charged by the G-20 with helping to make this happen. Its task is to suggest the structure and the incentives that are believed necessary to optimize use of agricultural resources within this sustainable framework.

While questions are asked as to how this may be accomplished and whether it’s even possible to expand crop production to the needed dimension in a sustainable fashion, it is a positive that almost all serious studies agree that doing this is a job for the private sector, not for governments. Hardly anything is more central to success, it is widely understood, than well-functioning markets that provide clear price signals all along the food supply chain. The supply-demand factors in such markets will have to recognize the scarcity of raw materials essential to expanding food production. The main goal must be spurring farmers to make optimal use of resources. Furthermore, agreement is widespread over the value of guaranteeing property rights that are defined so as to assure the best use of resources and application of appropriate technology focused on “greener” practices.

So far as the crops are concerned that will be key to meeting those food requirements, it is agreed they will be wheat, coarse grains and rice. These are the same crops where productivity gains in the past half century or longer have allowed production to keep pace with population and demand gains. It is also here where disagreements arise as to how best to meet the yield gaps characterizing production around the world. Huge differences in yields are present not just among countries with vastly different environments but also as measured against models of the possible. Closing these gaps would help achieve the crop gains essential for the future, but doing this in a sustainable manner is an effort demanding widespread participation by the global food industry. Sustainable intensification in using available land and water is the goal. While not in easy reach, it is a goal that must be attained.