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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Feeding More People as the World Warms

Air Date: Week of

As global temperatures rise due to the effects of climate change, one steep challenge will be to feed a growing population. Inger Andersen, Vice President of Sustainable Development at the World Bank, shares some ideas for increasing the world’s agricultural production sustainably with host Steve Curwood.


GELLERMAN: From the Cancun Climate Summit, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. With consumption increasing and world population and temperatures rising, the danger is rising of shocks to the food supply. Crop yields fell by 30 percent seven years ago in France during a heat wave that also killed more than 14,000. And the subsistence agriculture that 70 percent of developing world depends on is even more vulnerable to extreme weather. But according to Inger Andersen, the vice president of Sustainable Development at the World Bank, the world need not descend into widespread famine if action is taken now.

ANDERSEN: As the population is rising, the nine billion people that we will have by 2050 we need to increase the productivity of the agricultural sector by about two and a quarter times. That’s huge. But, it’s also doable. But that means that we need to bring together research, we need to bring together efficiencies and we need to look at carbon positive agriculture. Agriculture can no longer be about expanding, but it must be about more crop per drop, more crop per square inch, and being smarter and wiser about the way we grow and consume our foods.

CURWOOD: What are some of the most important sustainable ways to increase crop yields?

ANDERSEN: Now I’m talking about poor farmers. This poor farmer who lives on a hill top in Ethiopia, at 4,000 meters above sea level, in scorching summers and very cold nights, he or she will want to see that the soil erosion that they have experienced, where the trees are gone, so that the soil depth is very thin- they need to find ways that they can bring back soil fertility to some of these soils.

And, what does that look like? It looks like you plant some trees, it looks like you ensure that the dung from the cows are collected and spread out on their farms, it looks like you make sure that the kind of species you grow are not those that deplete the soils, but rather are those that enrich the soils. These are the kind of things that need to happen, but not on a small pilot scale, they need to be scaled up.

When you see what I have seen, what was, you could describe it as a moon landscape, with a few rocks and a little house and nothing more, and a soil depth that is not more than ten to 20 inches, transformed over a five to seven year period where you also ensure that your small goats and your small sheep don’t run that you have them in one enclosed area, so you’ve cut and carry, as they say, the grass. And, you ensure that you do some landscaping and some terracing of some crops. It is a landscape completely transformed. You would not believe what you would see from prior to post. And, so there are answers. But there are answers that for that very poor family, needs a little help.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the World Bank for a moment. World Bank means money- lots of money- but how much money for sustainable agriculture?

ANDERSEN: So, we’ve been increasing our agricultural lending and support over the last six years, in fact, we’ve increased it rapidly. In Africa alone, we’ve doubled it. It now is about one billion a year, for Africa alone, just to give you an example. The reason being is that there is a great demand. We respond to client countries that ask for our support.

And, there is a clarity also, that it is agriculture that deals with the whole supply chain- from farm to fork. Our partner countries are asking us increasingly for support to ensure that the markets function, that the border crossings function, that the roads are there that the ports are there. Because otherwise, you find that productivity ahs gone up, but that it can actually not be distributed.

CURWOOD: People listening to us who are perhaps engaged on food in the United States will think of organic, local- how does this apply to what you at the World Bank are bringing to the World Food Supply?

ANDERSEN: Well, most of the poor people, in fact, are growing much of their agriculture is organic because they do not have the funds or the means to buy expensive chemicals. In Europe, the U.S. and other places where people are wealthier, and where we find that there is a demand on local foods, I think that that is a wonderful thing. You’ll find that most poor people are already buying local foods.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time. Inger Andersen is the Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank.

ANDERSEN: Thank you very much for the opportunity.



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