You’ve probably already heard the Malthusian projections targeting our planet’s finite capacity to feed a growing population—projected to reach 9 billion by 2050—in the face of dwindling resources of suitable land and water in productive climates. Prices for basic commodity foods have peaked twice since 2008, making headlines around the world. Most experts agree that if we continue to use today’s techniques and approaches to grow food, the math in the global agriculture equation won’t add up to a sustainable future.

But by working together, the public and private sectors can help deliver abundant, affordable, and nutritious food for all—a key ongoing goal of the World Bank Group. Likewise, IFC’s strategic focus on agribusiness is critical because of the sector’s role in food security. Sustainable food security in turn creates broad development impact, and directly contributes to poverty reduction. After all, in low-income countries, the agricultural sector often accounts for half or more of gross domestic product, and 60 to 80 percent of total employment.

Restoring sustainable food security to manageable levels requires a two-pronged approach: greatly increasing productivity of the food supply while also reducing losses within the food supply chain.

Increasing productivity

Agricultural productivity relies on many factors. Improving farming techniques through the development of new seed varieties, the introduction of agro-chemicals, and improved irrigation methods can together and separately lead to tremendous gains.

Productivity is also driven by increased access to finance, access to better and more timely information, and the ability of farmers to manage business risks. All of these gains result in higher food production. They also allow farmers to generate more income, raising living standards for a population that is heavily concentrated in developing countries.

Increased productivity spurs concerns as well—because climate change and steady pressure on natural resources are key challenges for the agriculture sector. Sustainability should be the driving force behind strategies to reach maximum productivity.

Reducing Losses

Preventing food losses is the second half of the food security equation. This area presents the biggest opportunity to quickly address food security, because large gains can be made in preventing these losses through relatively straight-forward improvements in distribution and infrastructure. PPPs can often be a good conduit for these improvements.

A 2011 study commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) concluded that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year. In low-income countries, food is lost mostly during the early and middle stages of the food supply chain; little food is wasted at the consumer level (unlike in middle- and high- income countries).

The causes of food losses and waste in low-income countries are mainly connected to harvesting techniques, storage and cooling facilities in difficult climatic conditions, and other agri-related infrastructure deficits. The benefits of good grain storage are especially obvious: simple solutions like storing surplus grain in vertical silos instead of warehouses or open platforms can reduce losses due to rot, theft, and misuse by a staggering 20 percent.

Functional roads, rails, and ports—often requiring serious investments to connect rural areas to urban markets—allow farmers to sell more and waste less. Since many of the places with the highest food losses are in hard to reach locations that can least afford it, transportation is a challenge that can’t be ignored any longer.

With SAGCOT in Tanzania and Beira Corridor in Mozambique, the public sector has carefully planned for the success of its agri-infrastructure projects. In Kenya, the national rail project transports freight to and from the port at Mombasa, with approximately 30 percent of its goods comprised of agriculture products. In these cases, the public sector provides the core transportation needs, and then relies on the private sector to build upon them. In these large investments, PPPs or private sector initiatives are driving the change.

Innovative solutions

Innovation doesn’t require mammoth changes—indeed, basic agriculture has sustained human beings for over 10,000 years—but information and communications technology breakthroughs in the past century have improved productivity in a way that would stun our forebears. Not all improvements, however, owe thanks to technology; they simply require examining old problems in new ways, and with a concerted spirit of partnership. Rural productive alliances, irrigation via integrated agri-cluster initiatives, and agricultural extension programs are linking groups through cooperative efforts. Collaborative financial products like warehouse receipts, weather insurance, and farmer finance are reducing the risks inherent to the sector by surpassing the traditional boundaries of financial services.

But we can’t make this progress alone. To succeed, we need to increase our partnerships with our World Bank colleagues, leading agri-focused organizations, and influential donors. Together, we can increase meaningful research and development, augment agri-infrastructure, and promote technology transfer and farmer training, paving the way toward progress.
And on this road, even the tiniest products symbolize progress. The development of drought-tolerant and flood-tolerant seeds in India and Bangladesh, for example, means that farmers who used to lose a rice crop once every two or three years are now able to sustain their productivity even under extreme weather conditions. That gives them the ability to get their children to school and to invest in their family’s health.

As the Gates Foundation’s Prabhu Pingali tells Handshake, “That’s the transformative power of agriculture.” Transformations like these—rooted in partnerships—are key to our collective future as our planet’s resources shrink and human demand grows.