Agricultural expert outlines path for developing nations to double food production, meet 2050 demand

Like countries throughout the world, Malaysia will need double its current food production by 2050 due to population growth and rising living standards.

At a meeting today in New York with Malaysia's Prime Minister and other senior leaders, a renowned international agricultural scientist says meeting that daunting challenge is possible but results will be gradual and efforts must begin now.

Dr. Aalt A. Dijkhuizen, President and Chairman of the Executive Board, Wageningen University and Research Centre in The Netherlands, detailed ways to secure the future of the country's food supply through seed research, a more sophisticated universal system of forecasting relevant crop prices, and high-tech assisted "precision farming."

"It is certainly possible to double food production in Malaysia through techniques and technologies within the financial reach of all, coupled with training, management support and other capacity building measures," Dr. Dijkhuizen told fellow members of Malaysia's Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council (GSIAC) -- a unique assembly of all-star international and Malaysian experts and leaders created to guide Malaysian development.

Specifically, the program includes:

  • Increased harvests per hectare, especially in rice, through plant species research and substitution to both improve salt tolerance and reduce water use. At the same time, the breeding efforts would improve food safety by reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides;
  • Better prediction of crop prices based on global harvests data and forecasts collected from nations worldwide. Working closely with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Dr. Dijkhuizen's institute is a world leader in this field; and
  • Precision farming, using information and communication technologies to collect data from the field and better inform farming decisions such as when and what to plant, along with training to improve growing, harvesting and other management practices.

Rice is a staple crop on which initial focus is recommended. It uses a lot of water, which will become even more scarce than it is now, Dr. Dijkhuizen adds, and intense research is underway worldwide on breeds of rice that use less water and produce more food.

Better predicting the supplies of various crops produced both regionally and worldwide in a given season will enlighten forecasts of prices associated with them and help farmers, consumers and governments prepare for unexpected -- sometimes catastrophic -- changes in prices.

Dr. Dijkhuizen says the FAO is embarked on creation of a global database designed to serve this purpose.

Oversupplies of just 1% of a given crop often upend global market price by as much as 5 to 7%. When a given crop is plentiful, people don't eat more of it immediately, he notes, causing price drops and losses to farmers and industry. Conversely, when there are shortages, competition forces up the price of food commodities people want.

Evolving technologies that improve forecasts of heat, precipitation and other local weather conditions, and sensors that can measure a field's soil fertility levels, all offer important information for decisions about how much pesticides and fertilizer are needed for crop success.

"These technologies are becoming so cheap and accessible, they are available for small scale farming as well as for industrial-sized farms," says Dr. Dijkhuizen.

The Netherlands is relatively small in territory, he notes, but has become the world's second largest food exporter due in part to enormous investments in advanced systems such as greenhouse facilities with regulated temperatures and precise water and fertilizer conditions. In such circumstances, up to 20 times more produce results compared with traditional outdoor crop systems, and with less than half the fertilizer input.

Dr. Dijkhuizen praises Malaysia for initiating steps to secure its food supply because improvements will be gradual, with annual food production increases estimated at 2 or 3% when sufficient efforts are applied.

"It is certain that demand for food will double in coming decades," he says. "Countries need to start working on addressing this need as soon as possible. If you wait until there is an urgent need to increase production, you are too late."

Chaired by Malaysian Prime Minister YAB Dato' Sri Mohd. Najib Tun Abdul Razak, the year-old GSIAC is today comprised of international experts in education, economics, business, science and technology, each volunteering to help the Asian country achieve an environmentally-sustainable, high-income economy driven by knowledge and innovation.

Host of the meeting in Manhattan is the New York Academy of Sciences, which co-chairs the GSIAC Secretariat and last year helped assemble international Council members from China, India, Russia, Japan, Korea, The Netherlands, the UK and the USA, including two Nobel laureates.

"Food is the essence of human life," Prime Minister Najib told the Council. "For those in the rich world, it's often about grocery stores, or even about menus. But for the billions of people who go hungry every day, it's about survival. It's about empty plates and bowls and families whose children will see a life's opportunities limited because of the lack of nutritious food that has harmed their ability to grow and learn."

Progress across a range of GSIAC projects

GSIAC and Malaysian experts offered updates on other Council programs, including the Malaysian Biomass Initiatives (MBI), designed to substantially increase high-skilled jobs and add billions of dollars to national revenue by converting waste from the country's massive palm oil industry into green industrial chemicals, biofuels and other products. The Council's expertise is being engaged to help maximise the industry's already valuable yield.

Other GSIAC initiatives involve building human capacity and public research assets, "Digital Malaysia," and the demonstration of efficient, high-tech model "Smart Communities," in which an integrated system of information and other technologies help maximize efficiency in Malaysian healthcare, education, transportation and energy use. The Academy has agreed to leverage its extensive network of world-leading experts in "Smart Communities" to develop a detailed technological framework for pilot projects.

Heading the GSIAC Secretariat is Ellis Rubinstein, Academy President and Chief Executive Officer, and Zakri Abdul Hamid (Dr. A.H. Zakri), Science Advisor to Prime Minister of Malaysia, and co-chair of the Malaysian Industry-Government Group on High Technology (MIGHT).

Says Mr. Rubinstein: "The GSIAC, in just one year, has catalyzed an alliance among competitors in the palm oil industry, a cornerstone of Malaysia's economy. This has taken an entire industry to the very tipping point of a massive economic transformation for the nation.

"We have set the stage for establishing a multi-sector, multi-application, integrated Smart Communities pilot project that could transform the services available to its citizenry while creating thousands of jobs. And, the GSIAC has embarked on an unprecedented alliance to improve education at every level from 'Cradle to Career.'

"The GSIAC a truly unique and visionary creation. Nowhere else have we seen such a holistic approach, well integrated with the private sector, being taken up by a national government."

Says Prof. Zakri: "GSIAC has provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to advance our local capacities in both scale and effectiveness. Thanks to the New York Academy of Sciences, we have a chance to work with a partnership of many of the world's leading multinational companies – usually competitors but, for us, coming together – and experts from universities around the world. This alliance gives us confidence we can take up in Malaysia the best practices so far demonstrated anywhere in the world. It opens the door to major foreign investment. And it gives us a chance that no other government – either regional or national – has anywhere else in the world: to develop a staged, integrated solution to our citizen's needs that will dramatically increase efficiencies of scale as well as metrics of performance and impact just by virtue of being an integrated, fully thought out plan from the outset."

Source: Malaysian Industry‑Government Group for High Technology