Let us look at the guarded part first. In this area we start with climate change. As the result of a recent column on climate change we have become abundantly aware of the fact that this is a contentious issue for some and a matter of fact for others. That being said, as academics looking 40 years down the road, as one of our scenarios, we would be irresponsible if we did not look at the potential impact of climate change on agriculture.

Some research suggests that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may aid in photosynthesis and crop yields as long as temperatures do not increase too much. A sharp increase in temperatures in a given location could result in lower yields despite the increased availability of carbon dioxide. The factors that could affect yield include higher temperatures, shifting production areas, increased weather variability, and the increased likelihood of severe weather events. In some sense, climate change is the wild card in the deck. We have never been there before and we don’t know exactly what to expect. Nonetheless we need to be prepared for the potential changes we face in this area.

A decade ago, there was a lot of talk about a yield plateau because it appeared that the rate of increase in yields was decreasing. Today we are seeing record yields every couple of years and the seed companies are talking about things like 300 bushel per acre corn. We have been able to move corn yields up dramatically. It remains to be seen how quickly we can move beyond the gains of the green revolution when it comes to wheat and rice.

The next area of concern is Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This vast area of the world was bypassed by the green revolution and yields remained stable or falling at about 1 tonne per hectare. Part of the problem is the north-south orientation of the continent so farmers fall into a large number of climatic zones compared to areas that benefitted from the green revolution. Yield gains elsewhere will still leave SSA impoverished and dependent upon charitable aid unless research is done to improve the yields of indigenous crops that are already adapted to the local climatic conditions.

Given the degree of environmental degradation in many areas and the nature of small plots, attention will need to be given to sustainable, conservation-based agricultural techniques that build soil and enable farmers to provide for the nutritional needs of their families. Because SSA has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, it is extremely important that attention is paid to improving agricultural production at the household level.

The doubling of grain and oilseed output over the next 40 years in not dependent simply upon yield increases in the US corn belt. Increasing yields by 1 tonne per hectare (national average US corn yields are in the range of 10 tonnes per hectare) in developing nations would go a long way toward achieving food security for the current population and developing the ability to meet future population growth needs. Simply reducing post-harvest loss with basic, but effective, storage options would bring about an immediate improvement in production numbers. The adoption of locally appropriate technologies that protect soil, increase water retention, and increase total nutritional output of a farm can result in the needed yield increases in SSA.