Feeding the world in the 21st century
Published: 27/12/2010 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Business
One of the biggest challenges the world faces over the next half century is how to feed a global population that is rapidly increasing. Some estimates have world population topping out at nine billion by mid-century, a near 50% increase.
World demand for calorie-rich, nutritious fare is starting to jump. Feeding so many hungry mouths is a complex task. But it will never happen unless we substantially increase food yields, especially the yields of staple foods such as palm oil which is already used by over one billion consumers around the world.
The good news is that our industry has the potential to meet the rising demand. We have invested in productivity-enhancing technology to boost yields. And we have done this while protecting the global environment. Palm oil is the world's most sustainable vegetable oil as it produces significantly more calories per acre than competing products. Thus our industry contributes safe food products to enhance global food security; protects valuable natural resources such as forests; and provides good jobs and careers for an aspirational middle class.
But there are potential roadblocks to feeding the world's billions. Those obstacles come from a small but loud minority of misguided policymakers and activists who wish to put parochial interests ahead of the broader public interest.
Take for example the World Bank, for many years they supported palm oil development and other plantation agriculture projects in poorer, less developed countries. The Bank's mission is to help kick-start economic growth. So supporting plantation agriculture was long viewed as a worthy goal.
But now the Bank has bowed to the wishes of a few environmental groups that have pressured the Bank to halt funding for plantation agriculture in the developing world and impose far-reaching regulations that will stifle the future of the industry. Environmental groups claim palm oil harms forests and wildlife. Knowledgeable observers have pointed out that this isn't true; and that it is likely that these Western-based environmental groups are instead trying to help Western agriculture interests.
Whatever the reason for the NGO opposition, it is worrisome that the Bank would bend under pressure from activist groups. It is especially troubling when the need to feed three billion more people around the globe is just over the horizon.
Most worrisome of all, the World Bank is not alone. Regulators throughout the West are starting to question the industrial practices of companies in tropical Asia. Their criticism is tinged with irony. After all, Western nations harnessed their natural resources and endowments on their path to becoming wealthy and developed. Asian nations are simply following this time-honored path to success.
Either way, it is important that all stakeholders keep their eyes set firmly on what's most important - the pressing need to feed the billions of people who currently live on less than $2.00 per day, as well as the billions more that will need to be fed in the coming decades. To do that we must produce food that is safe, inexpensive and sustainable. Palm oil is the anchor of that global strategy.
The author is the chief executive officer of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, Tan Sri Dr Yuson Basiron.