We need to boost food production on current farmlands

16 Aug 2020
Tim Searchinger


In Africa, agricultural GHG emissions are overwhelmingly from two sources: cattle rearing and clearing forests.

Tim Searchinger

Tim Searchinger, Senior Fellow and Technical Director, Food Program, World Resources Institute; and Research Scholar, Princeton University, discusses how better-targeted agriculture subsidies and innovation can boost food production in Africa and reduce carbon emissions caused by farming. He spoke with Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria Magazine – Africa’s premier development and finance journal, via Zoom.

Jide Akintunde (JA): A new report you co-authored advises that the world needs to increase food production while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions – caused by agriculture. Why are these goals a necessity and not contradictory?

Tim Searchinger (TS): Of course, they could be contradictory if we don’t make changes. Without the necessary changes, we would increase our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by producing more food. We need to produce more food on the same land. This is probably the single most critical need from an environmental standpoint in Africa, and also from the standpoint of feeding people. If we produce more food on the same land, we won’t have to clear as much forests. Clearing forests is a major contributor to GHG emissions.

We also need to pursue the most valuable forms of animal products in terms of lower GHG emissions. We need more poultry, chicken and dairy products rather than beef. This is an important choice that the world needs to make.

And then there are a range of innovative technologies for reducing emissions. In Africa, the agricultural GHG emissions are overwhelmingly from two sources. One is from cattle rearing, and the other is from clearing forests. So, the real challenge on the continent is to produce more food on the same land, feed cattle more efficiently, which would help reduce emissions, and try to shift from beef to other meat, to the extent that people eat meat.   

JA: Your report says agricultural subsidies are not helping much in the pursuit of these dual objectives. Why is it important to understand the role of subsidies in food production and carbon emissions?

TS: Most of the world’s agricultural subsidies are provided in wealthier countries. Therefore, they are not helping the world’s poor farmers. Half of the world’s agricultural subsidies are in the form of trade barriers. Governments put barriers that limit imports to help keep prices high in their countries. But the countries with the highest trade barriers are those that are already relatively wealthy. So, by definition, they are hurting farmers in poor countries.

The farmers subsidies are helping those that are less in need of smoothening out prices for their products. All farmers like to have consistent higher prices. But by guarantying higher prices for wealthier farmers, you are reducing the prices for poor farmers. On the whole, these subsidies are not boosting productivity.
A lot of the subsidies also go into a form of income support for larger farmers in wealthier countries. This doesn’t necessarily support improvement. Only about 6 per cent of agricultural assistance is for research and development. So, the money is not going into the areas it can increase productivity that much, and it’s not going into reducing GHG emissions.

JA: What would you like to draw the attention of policymakers in Africa to on this issue and other agricultural practices in the continent?

TS: Africa is a different story. For a long time, African governments imposed net taxation on agriculture. They weren’t subsidizing agriculture; they were charging agriculture. That was hurting agriculture on the continent. The countries that have moved towards subsidies have been focusing on fertilizer subsidies. Part of the challenge in that is that it has been very difficult to get fertilizer subsidies to be equitable; it is stifling the private sector market for fertilizers.

Also, in many places in Africa, just adding fertilizer alone does not provide the right balance. The returns on providing fertilizers are minimal if improvement in the quality of the soils is not addressed, for example.
I don’t think I have the complete answer for how to channel funding for agriculture in Africa. But finding cheaper ways to get fertilizer available in the private market is important. This should entail producing fertilizer within Africa. It is also important to reduce transportation costs in the agriculture value chain. We need a more balanced mix of efforts to support farmers that focus less heavily on just fertilizers.

JA: Subsidies have generated a lot of contention in global trade negotiations. Why is reform of subsidies an alternative discussion to elimination or retention of subsidies?

TS: A lot of the trade negotiations haven’t really led to a reduction in subsidies. They have led to a change in the form of subsidies. Less money is provided in a way that is paying farmers based on how much they grow crops. In Europe for example, the funding is more per hectare of land. You get a subsidy regardless of how much you produce on that land. Granted, this idea is less trade distorting.
I think the real question is what can we do more with these funds? Subsidies in Africa are a lot lower because governments don’t have the same amount of money. So, when we are talking about reforms, it tends to be in the wealthier countries where the subsidies are the largest.
We have a number of recommendations for what subsidies should do. One example is we should be subsidizing production on existing agricultural land, not new land. We want people to boost production on their existing land. One requirement in the United States is that government should not subsidize farmers who clear more land. That is a way of protecting forests, while boosting production on existing land.  

JA: What are your recommendations for better use of funding support for agriculture?

TS: Problems are complicated, and you need to solve them in integrated ways. Let’s say we have new opportunities to improve yam production in West Africa and there are new varieties of yam we want farmers to try out. You want to have a sort of integrated project that teaches farmers how to do it and analyze the problems they are having with those new yam varieties. This is the kind of project that you have technical people working side-by-side with farmers.

In Africa, there is a great deal of post-harvest food losses, that is, food that goes bad before it gets to the market. We need better and cheaper ways of helping farmers to store their food. We need more food processing, so that farmers can get their food processed before it spoils. That requires integrated projects rather than just simple subsidies. Farmers can also work together to support efforts to improve food processing and storage banks.

There is a company in California in the United States that makes an organic spray that helps to keep vegetables from rotting for a long time. The company also got into a project for preserving cassava. However, the project was discontinued. A lot of cassava is lost in the process of turning it into garri. So, we need governments to support the development of new and cheap sprays for cassava farmers to enable them to preserve the crop.

This is an example of where you need an integrated project to reduce the food loss in cassava production. You need scientists working together with farmers to try and develop ways of solving the problem. That’s a good way to use subsidies.

JA: Are you optimistic that the world can pull off the set goals of producing 50% more food in 2050 compared to 2010 while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds?

TS: I am optimistic that it will be technically possible if we really tried. There are lots of opportunities to increase yields. I think there is a global common benefit of increasing yields in ways that combine reduction in GHG emissions. In Africa, the efforts should be focused on increasing yields, not clearing forests; feeding cattle more efficiently so that they emit less GHGs for each kilogramme of meat or milk; and then shifting to more poultry production. So, there may be significant opportunities in these areas.
There have been breakthroughs in the last year in plant-based hamburgers. These are hamburgers made from plants and they taste exactly like the regular hamburgers. They are still a little bit too expensive. But my guess is that the cost will come down in the next five years.
The same innovation could be used in Africa. Producing plant-based hamburgers in Africa will take a fraction of the amount of land used in producing each kilogramme of meat. I think those innovations are coming. The question is whether we pursue them.
As soon as that becomes cheap enough, it becomes a great option for improving the diets of people all around the world, including in Africa. Even in the United States, we need people to shift to these plant-based hamburgers.
Another innovation is plant-based chicken. This is a product that tastes a lot like conventional chicken although it is made from plants. And it uses a fraction of the land and other recourses that are used to produce regular chicken.
So, I am optimistic that we could have the technical means to do this. But I am less optimistic that we will do it because it depends on whether governments can figure out ways to act intelligently on this matter.