Agriculture must take a smarter approach to raw materials

Agriculture should change its focus from maximising yields per hectare to achieving more effective and sustainable use of raw materials and water in order bring about a better food supply. Cooperation among countries is crucial in this respect. This is the view of Dirk Jan Kennes, global strategist at Rabobank Food & Agribusiness Research.

Kennes is researching the development of productivity in agriculture and livestock farming. This is a critical issue considering that the world population will grow from seven billion now to more than nine billion in 2050. This will lead to a sharp increase in demand for food. Banking for Food is Rabobank’s vision on the global food issue and its role in relation to it. The food issue is the theme of today’s AgriVision conference of which Rabobank is a sponsor. Rabobank Executive Board Chairman Wiebe Draijer is one of the speakers at the event.

Focus on increasing production

Farmers worldwide have focused on increasing production over the past ten years. It became clear a decade ago that the world is facing a food challenge. The prices of many products have risen as a result. Farmers have consequently focused on more production and are now harvesting more kilos of grain and oilseeds per hectare. Kennes: ‘Back in 2006, we were facing a huge challenge to be able to feed the world in 2050. Approximately half of the necessary increase in production has been realised over the past ten years.’

Limits to the increase in production

‘This growth in production has, however, been achieved on the borderline of what can be considered responsible,’ says Kennes. The use of fertilizer has, for example, risen by 23 percent over the past ten years. There are, from the viewpoint of sustainability, limits to using fertilizers and chemical crop protection products to keep raising production further. What’s more, these materials also take petroleum to produce. ‘There needs to be a change of direction and there can be,’ the Rabobank analyst says. ‘We’ve still got about thirty years left to realise the other half of the required additional production. So there is scope for doing this in a more sustainable and ecologically responsible way around the world. The aim should no longer be for farmers to achieve the highest possible production per hectare no matter what. The focus should now be on ensuring that they use the available land, raw materials and water as efficiently and sustainably as possible for food production.’

Better use of natural cycles

New technologies and insights are needed that farmers can put into practice. This pertains to insights into soil fertility, precision agriculture (specific treatment of plants and animals, rather than per field or stall), better and smarter use of natural cycles, nutrition and livestock housing. By effectively applying insights in these areas, farmers can achieve higher production with the same amounts of land, raw materials and water, without having to use additional chemicals and depleting the soil.

Countries are complementary

This will not be possible without greater cooperation among countries and regions around the globe. This is because countries complement and need each other. Kennes says there is not one single recipe for the whole world. There are countries that both have large amounts of agricultural land and raw materials and a large-scale, modern agricultural sector, such as the United States, New Zealand and Australia. These countries should aim for even smarter technology. Countries such as India and China, which have low productivity and relatively few raw materials, should focus primarily on simple technology augmented with high-quality practical knowledge about specialised fields such as grain cultivation and breeding and feeding pigs and cattle. This will in turn provide opportunities for a country such as the Netherlands that has limited land and raw materials, but does possess high-quality knowledge.

54 billion fewer kilos of grain for pork production

There is huge potential. Kennes takes China as an example. It is the country with the world’s largest pig population. China could develop the production of pork by, for example, using relatively inexpensive grains and other livestock feeds from the United States, augmented with knowledge, education and services from the Netherlands. Dutch pigs convert feed much more efficiently into pork than pigs in China currently do. If the Chinese were to succeed in achieving the Dutch level of efficiency, it would mean that 54 billion fewer kilos of grain would be needed for the production of pork.