Pathways for Sustainable Development

Pathways for Sustainable Development

by Pininvest Analysis

The Future of Food on

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Providing for food, in quantity and quality, for human populations has been the subtext of governmental strategies for years but growing awareness of the potential gap between supply and demand has given an unusual sense of urgency to land access and to fertilizers availability, with sustainability of the ecosystem an overarching prerequisite

Trends of population growth in large parts of the world (Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, foremost) combine with marked urbanization, decreasing arable land availability and new food patterns of large middle classes powering exploding demand, especially in meat and cereals to feed livestock

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the demand for cereals, for both food and animal feed uses is projected to reach some 3 billion tons by 2050, which was around 2.1 billion tons in the year 2009

Three distinct scenarios look into the future

In an effort to highlight the options in agriculture and to map pathways most likely to further sustainable agricultural systems around the world, accounting for very different regional areas, the FAO explored scenarios

As reported inthe FAO's "the Future of Food and Agriculture" (2018), the scenarios are not projections but guidelines to evaluate the challenges to food security and to maintenance of the ecosystem for future generations

Climate change and income distribution find their way into models which used to concentrate mainly on growth of the human population, land availability and crop yield alone, signaling how sustainability - over a long horizon - drives profound choices in the societies at large

To confront the emerging uncertainties, the scenarios lay out the options

  • Taking a 'business-as-usual' approach, adjusting to environmental constraints on a piecemeal basis
  • Dealing boldly with the future challenges
  • Doing nothing in a stratified society, 


A weighty marker - unequal distribution of population change

The potential gap between food supply and demand by growing - but very unequally distributed - populations has given an unusual sense of urgency to land access, crop yield and to fertilizers availability 

Projecting world population growth - source U. of Freiburg  (Nov. 2011)

'Trends of population growth in large parts of the world (Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, foremost) combine with increasing urbanization, decreasing arable land availability and new food patterns of large middle classes to power exploding demand, especially in meat and cereals to feed livestock

Rice, wheat and other cereals have driven the sharp increase in food consumption worldwide in the second half of the 20th century, and vegetable oils consumption has been a factor since 2000

source - FAO - Structural Change in Food Composition

According to the FAO, the demand for cereals, in both food and animal feed uses, is projected to reach some 3 billion tons by 2050, which was around 2.1 billion tons in the year 2009


Growing cereals in the developing countries

An outsized share in human diet of a growing population, both for human consumption and as livestock feed, cereals (rice, wheat and maize) are probably a focal point of agricultural policies

source - FAO - World Agriculture towards 2030-2050 (2012 revision page 124)

As observed by the authors of the 2012 World Agriculture report from which the table is excerpted , and highlighted by the 1-to-7 spread between top- and bottom deciles in developing countries, there is 'considerable slack in the crop yields of the different countries' and it is suggested that, even after accounting for 'agro-ecological environments', yield gaps are significant

If the interpretation proves to be correct,  a notable part of the 'exploitable yield gap' where differences in the socio-economic and policy environments probably play a major role, could be narrowed by addressing differences in crop management practices such as sub-optimal use of inputs and other cultural practices

Supported by multiple studies on soil qualities, the implication is encouraging 

"Crop production could increase through the adoption of improved technologies and practices to bridge some of the gap that separates actual yields from obtainable yields. The broad lesson of experience seems to be that if scarcities develop and prices rise, farmers quickly respond by adopting such technologies and increasing production, at least those living in an environment of not too-difficult access to improved technology, transport infrastructure and supportive policies" - World Agriculture towards 2030-2050 (page 125)

While the potential for the fertilizer industry and farming technologies appears significant, the authors hasten to moderate what 'narrowing the exploitable gap' might mean

  • The less productive countries with the largest potential for improvement (Ukraine, Argentina) might not deliver the additional food supply where it is most needed
  • Environmental concern will require a more careful husbanding of the eco-system than short-term price strategies might induce

Over the past decade, the later concerns have grown notably and the FAO has introduced an analytical array based on three scenarios - do little, pursue sustainability and do nothing (or worse)


FAO's three scenarios 

The scenarios of FAO's 2018 report suggest pathways to sustainability of the agricultural systems, by weighing the strategic options available region by region

Convincingly, scenarios are stark reminders of all that could go wrong

  • 'business-as-usual' (BAU) implies modest, practical adjustments along long-term growth trends
  • 'towards sustainability' (TSS) highlights the changes needed to achieve sustainability over time 
  • 'stratified societies' (SSS) aggravates existing inequalities in terms of income distribution and access to food 

The models may offer black-and-white alternatives which, in the geopolitical context and given the unequal distribution of wealth and poverty across regions, may be perceived as constrained projections

In fact, the FAO suggests great flexibility - and intermediate stations between the 3 scenarios - because all three rely on the same parameters to characterize the agricultural systems

Of these parameters, two are most familiar - yield and area cultivation - but it is the third parameter - intensification - which may lead the drive to sustainability by  gaining distinct status apart from yield

source - FAO - The Future of Food and Agriculture (2018) - fig 4.16 page 38

In characterizing sustainable intensification (section 4 of the report - pages 35-41), the focus is on water management and land resources

  • Water scarcity - already a reality in some regions and exacerbated by population growth and climate change - puts efficient use at a premium
  • Rehabilitation of degraded land could contribute to enhanced productivity and, of course, land availability

The distinct trendlines mark - unsurprisingly - the great differences in agricultural practices but comparisons between the scenarios from region to region draw some consistent observations

  • Yield - as a key parameter - remains the dominant factor of growth in the 'BAU' (business-as-usual) scenario but looses its crown in all regions under a sustainability drive
  • Intensification is recognized as unusually important in China and in high-income countries, even under 'BAU',  as access to fertile land is constrained 
  • In TSS (towards sustainability), intensification is recognized as the key factor of crop growth across the world, even gaining a foothold in Africa (where land access remains dominant)
  • The stratified model (SSS) presents stark differences - in a critical way - mainly in middle- and low-income countries (with the notable exception of China) - while in high-income countries and in China, BAU and SSS share the same growth factors

Regions most likely to edge towards sustainability farming - either under pressure of land and water availability (as in China and probably India) or by popular sensitivity (as in high-income countries) - may provide a valuable guideline to gain understanding of the subtle combination of yield and intensification

If the FAO wished to put growth by yield on trial, it was not to question yield - and the contribution of the fertilizer industry in achieving great advances in crop productivity 

Rather, by putting yield and intensification back-to-back, the FAO highlighted the urgency of mutually supportive policies of fertilization and natural resources management

Given the potential of technological advances in water management, crop control and land protection, the fertilizer industry - a privileged and essential partner of agriculture the world over - might be well advised to partner, or even to integrate such expertise in their sales strategies 

The "future of sustainable agriculture" could be pointing the way for the future of the fertilizer industry as well...