MARK COLVIN: Worldwide food production will have to rise by a staggering 70per cent by the middle of this century if food riots are not to become commonplace.

That’s the dire warning issued by the United Nations’ food agency which says almost 400 million people will face famine unless food production is dramatically and urgently increased.

The UN says the cost of meeting the challenge will be net investments of around $90 billion a year in agriculture in developing countries.

Barbara Miller reports.

BARBARA MILLER: By 2050 the world’s population is predicted to rise to more than nine billion. That’s an increase of around one-third. But it doesn’t translate into a need for food production to rise by one-third, as the director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization Jacques Diouf told delegates at a high-level forum in Rome:

JACQUES DIOUF: The combined effect of population growth, strong income growth and urbanisation is expected to result in almost the doubling of demand for food, feed and fibre.

Corey Watts from the Climate Institute, who’s based in Melbourne, also stresses that it’s not just population growth that’s fuelling the need for food production to be dramatically increased.

COREY WATTS: Demand per capita for food is rising. So there are going to be more people expecting more and many of those people whose incomes will have risen, particularly in south Asia and east Asia, they will be expecting not only more but different kinds of foods, in particular more animal products which are more demanding of resources.

At the same time we’re running into real limits – limits of water, limits of land and limits of oil and fertilisers mined from the earth. But in particular climate change is starting to bite.

BARBARA MILLER: One place where that bite is being felt is Kenya where in some provinces there’s been no rain for three years. Cattle and people are dying and those who survive are struggling with ever dwindling resources.

WOMAN (translated): My water rations won’t even last the morning. The children drink a little and then we give some to the animals. And then we are all thirsty again.

BARBARA MILLER: The effects of climate change are predicted to lead to decreased potential output of up to 30 per cent in the developing world.

The Food and Agriculture Organization says net investments of around $90 billion a year in agriculture are needed to meet the challenge.

The Climate Institute’s Corey Watts says there must also be a fundamental change in approach.

COREY WATTS: Really what we need now is a second green revolution. The first green revolution from the 1940s onwards was a revolution based on higher chemical inputs, fertilisers and pesticides, the use of mechanisation in agriculture and better cultivars and varieties. And that delivered enormous advances in food production; really quite terrific.

But unfortunately it also delivered a number of problems including environmental degradation and a high dependence on oil and fossil fuels.

BARBARA MILLER: So what would a second green revolution look like?

COREY WATTS: So the second green revolution really needs to be based on doing more with less. It means producing food that has less damage on the environment, is less dependent on oil, produces less greenhouse gas emissions. It really means doing things quite differently.

And that job cannot be left to our farmers alone.

BARBARA MILLER: But Professor Daniel Sumner, the director of the Agricultural Issues Centre at the University in California in Davis, has his doubts about the political will for change.

DANIEL SUMNER: As we saw last year when they were high food prices, the Indians put on a ban on rice, the Filipinos reacted to that with some panic buying and we saw some spice in the price of food.

All of that signals some worries about our ability politically to allow food to flow to the people that need it most.

BARBARA MILLER: Delegates at the UN forum in Rome are expected to draw up proposals for discussion at a World Food Summit to be held next month.

MARK COLVIN: Barbara Miller.


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