WASHINGTON – Cargill Inc. Chief Executive Greg Page said Wednesday that the ability to feed a world expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion people by midcentury must include optimal planting practices, stable local markets, free international trade and an African continent that pulls its weight in agricultural production.
The head of Minnetonka-based Cargill, who outlined the four-pronged plan in a speech to the World Cocoa Foundation, said coordination would be vital to increase food production by 70 percent in the face of an exploding global citizenry.
“We believe this production increase absolutely is achievable,” Page told an international audience of roughly 200 foundation members.
Page argued in favor of individual property ownership, especially among “small holders,” Page’s term for farmers tending relatively few acres in developing nations.
At the same time, Page counseled against government price controls.
“A price that adequately rewards farmers for their efforts and provides enough money to motivate them to produce again the following year is the fundamental ingredient of sustainable agriculture,” Page said. “Price is more important than any other crop input.”
Government price controls are intended to make food more affordable to the poor, he continued, but they send an unintended message to farmers to produce less.
Page also noted that years of high food and commodity prices have actually doubled the real per capita income of 70 percent of the world’s poorest citizens because so many of them work in agriculture.
The ability to plant, harvest and sell what grows best in a particular country depends not only on climate and soil conditions, but also on the existence of a much freer international trading system, the Cargill chief pointed out. For global food security to become real, agricultural surpluses must move easily from where there is plenty of a particular food stuff to where there is not.
“Today only 15 to 16 percent of the food produced in the world crosses international borders,” he explained, adding that the number must grow to adequately feed the growing urban populations of the coming decades. Free trade is also a hedge against “inevitable weather-related crop failures.”
Finally, Page talked about the agricultural conundrum of Africa. The continent contains 60 percent of world’s potentially available crop land, but it remains a net food importer and has registered relatively few productivity gains in the past 40 years.
Africa needs infrastructure, policies and nonfarm income to realize its agricultural promise, Page said. That is why Cargill and others in the food industry are starting to invest in sustainable farming initiatives on the continent.
Africa may be the most important place in the world to spend money, Page said, because there are few ways to nourish a growing world until Africa “contributes positively and proportionately to global food production.”