Agriculture in the twenty-first century



The future, just like the past, is likely to be characterized by a mix of successes and failures along the path towards a better fed world and more sustainable livelihoods and agriculture. Forecasts suggest that by 2010, agriculture will tend to be more intensive and more productive. In the future, the current problems of water distribution and resource and environmental degradation are likely to increase.

As we progress into the next century, the world as a whole will continue to produce enough to feed an increasing population. Nutrition will continue to improve in most developing regions. But the disparities between regions will become even greater, with sub-Saharan Africa particularly badly affected.

The rate of growth in world food production, which has been slowing down for the past three decades, will continue to decelerate. It dropped from 3 percent a year in the 1960s to 2 percent in the 1980s, and is expected to continue to fall to 1.8 percent in 2010. World population, meanwhile, is forecast to increase to around 7 000 million, 94 percent of the increase being in developing countries.

Food supplies for direct human consumption will increase in developing countries from about 2 500 calories per caput per day in the early 1990s to just over 2 700 calories in 2010. By then three regions - East Asia (including China), North Africa and the Near East, and Latin America and the Caribbean - are likely to reach or exceed the 3 000 calorie mark. South Asia may make significant progress, coming close to the present developing country average. But in sub-Saharan Africa where nutrition has already declined over the past three decades -food supplies per caput are likely to grow little, if at all, remaining at less than 2 200 calories a day.

As a result, sub-Saharan Africa is likely to take over from South Asia as the region with the greatest number of chronically undernourished people; the number is expected to grow there from 200 million at the start of the 1990s to around 300 million 20 years later, while the number in South Asia is expected to fall only marginally from the present 250 million. These broad estimates indicate there may be fewer chronically malnourished in the developing world, despite population growth: down from the present 800 million to 650 million. But this estimate shows that past hopes that the world would be on a firm path to eliminating hunger and malnutrition by the end of the century remain optimistic in the absence of any new, major global initiative that might significantly change present perspectives.

Total imports of agricultural products by developing countries are growing faster than exports. For some, this will reflect the development process as they turn away from economies dominated by agriculture. But for those low-income countries that remain heavily dependent on agricultural exports to finance food and other imports it will reduce their chances for sustainable economic growth.


Food supplies and crop production



Share planted to modern wheat varieties in developing countries

Share of wheat crop area planted to modern wheat varieties* in developing countries

*Excludes tall varieties released since 1965


Increasing yields

Increases in food production by the year 2010 will depend on further intensification of agriculture in developing countries. Together with growth in yields, more land will be brought into production and the existing land used more intensively.

Growth in yields has been the main cause of increases in production in the past, and will be even more important in the future, particularly in Asia and North Africa and the Near East, where land is scarce. Yields of both wheat and rice are expected to grow substantially, if less rapidly than in the past, but this will depend on an unabated research effort.

Fertilizer use in developing countries (excluding China) has grown four-fold over the past 20 years, although the rate of growth declined sharply from the 1970s to the 1980s. Application is expected to go on increasing, while the rate of growth will continue to fall: it is forecast that some 80 million tonnes of nutrients in the form of fertilizer will be used in developing countries, outside China, in 2010, compared to 37 million tonnes in the early 1990s.

The amount of land under cultivation is expected to increase. In 1995 about 760 million hectares were used to produce crops in the least developed countries (excluding China): this could grow to some 850 million hectares by 2010. Only about 600 million of the 760 million hectares in use are actually cropped and harvested in an average year - a cropping intensity of 79 percent. This rate of use could increase to 85 percent, bringing the total harvested area to some 720 million hectares by 2010.

The area occupied by human settlements could increase by some 35 million hectares, some of which will be land with agricultural potential. The expansion would take place mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, although there might also be some in East Asia (excluding China).

Achieving higher yields and greater intensification will depend crucially on maintaining and expanding irrigation systems; they will have to increase by 23 million hectares, or 19 percent, over and above the area lost to waterlogging and salinization. The bulk of this increase would be in South Asia.

Sustainable production

Working towards eliminating undernutrition and food insecurity in developing countries is only one of the two main tasks that have to be undertaken in order to feed present and future generations. The other is the need to safeguard the productive potential and broader environmental functions of agricultural resources.

The FAO Forest Resources Assessment of tropical countries in 1990 estimated their annual deforestation to be about 15.4 million hectares or 0.8 percent of the total tropical forest area. Agricultural expansion is a major contributor to deforestation and is expected to continue to be so. The impact of the expansion of crop production need not be great. More deforestation is likely to continue, however, as a result of the extension of grazing and of informal, unrecorded -often slash-and-burn -agriculture. Both deforestation and the draining of wetlands for agriculture will reduce biological diversity.


Demand for water is expected to grow in years to come, but Africa and Asia are already experiencing an increasing shortage in the availability of water per caput. In many countries throughout the world water resources are scarcer than land availability. The need to increase agricultural production will accentuate pressures on water; the resulting scarcity may drive up prices beyond economic levels for crops in some areas. Meanwhile over-extraction of groundwater, particularly in the Near East and large areas of South Asia, is causing water levels to fall beneath the reach of the shallow tubewells used for irrigation, or leading to intrusions of salt water which make it unsuitable for crop production. Water contamination from a number of sources including fertilizers, pesticides and the effluents of intensive livestock units and fish farms, is likely to increase.

The problem of land degradation is also likely to grow. Degradation from "nutrient mining" - denuding soils of major nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus and micronutrients such as boron and manganese - is serious in many countries, but most acute in sub-Saharan Africa.

Poverty is a major driving force behind rural environmental damage, as more and more people try to extract a living out of dwindling resources, producing a risk of a vicious circle of human deprivation and resource degradation. But it is not exclusively to blame.

Wealthier areas of the world, such as Western Europe and North America, have also suffered resource degradation, including soil erosion, water pollution and deforestation. They have responded, in part, by changing policies and incentives and by increasing investment. Most important of all, they have devised technological options and innovation and have educated land users in how to protect the resource base while increasing productivity. This is the same challenge facing many developing countries today.


Water resources

Internal renewable water resources per caput, 1992
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Fertilizer use in developing countries


Rural poverty

Reducing and eliminating rural poverty is the most effective way both to tackle hunger and to promote development, concludes the FAO study World Agriculture: Towards 2010. It says, "Only a combination of faster, poverty reducing development and public policy, both national and international, will ultimately improve access to food by the poor and eliminate chronic undernutrition. "

Increasing agricultural production as such will not end hunger since poor people may not be able to afford to buy the food that is produced; increasing the output in countries highly dependent on agriculture will, however, boost rural incomes and thus reduce poverty and assist development, since most of the world's poorest people depend on agriculture as the main source of their income.

Policies that neglected agriculture and promoted inappropriate technologies and management practices are now discredited. The FAO study calls for the shifting of technology from such "hardware" solutions as large doses of pesticides or building terraces with machines, to "solutions based on more sophisticated, knowledge and information-intensive resource management practices which can lower both off-farm costs and environmental pressures". New policies and measures will be needed to help farmers, forest users and fisherfolk pursue sustainable agricultural and rural development.

Access to land, through land reform, is a major factor in poverty alleviation and agricultural growth. Progress so far has been limited, but the case for reform remains strong on both efficiency and equity grounds. The poor in agriculture need better access to rural finance and better marketing services. And they need education, training and technical assistance to help them to be open to the new and profitable innovations that will be especially necessary in the transition to sustainable development. In this there is a role both for direct government intervention and for private sector initiatives.


Rural illiteracy

Rural illiteracy rates