U.N. says food production may fall 25 percent by 2050

NAIROBI Tue Feb 17, 2009 11:20am EST

A Vietnamese ethnic Nung farmer carries fertilizer while walking through a paddy field in Son Duong district, Vietnam's northern Tuyen Quang province, 150 km (93 miles) from Hanoi February 13, 2009. REUTERS/Kham

A Vietnamese ethnic Nung farmer carries fertilizer while walking through a paddy field in Son Duong district, Vietnam's northern Tuyen Quang province, 150 km (93 miles) from Hanoi February 13, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Kham

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Up to a quarter of global food production could be lost by 2050 due to the combined impact of climate change, land degradation and loss, water scarcity and species infestation, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

The fall-off will strike just as 2 billion more people are added to the world's population, according to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), which says cereal yields have stagnated worldwide and fish catches are declining.

In a new report, it said a 100-year trend of falling food costs could be at an end and that last year's sharp price rises had driven 110 million people into poverty.

Prices may have eased from those peaks in many areas, but experts say volatility -- combined with the impact of the global economic downturn -- has meant little respite for the poor.

"We need to deal with not only the way the world produces food but the way it is distributed, sold and consumed, and we need a revolution that boosts yields by working with rather than against nature," said UNEP executive director Achim Steiner.

More than half the food produced worldwide today was either lost, wasted or thrown away due to inefficiencies, he told a news conference at a major U.N. environment meeting in Kenya.

"There is evidence within the report that the world could feed the entire projected population growth alone by becoming more efficient while also ensuring the survival of wild animals, birds and fish on this planet," Steiner said.

The UNEP's "Rapid Response Assessment," released on Tuesday, said world food prices were estimated to rise by 30-50 percent over the coming decades -- while the global population is seen climbing to more than 9 billion from nearly 7 billion.

It said price regulations for commodities should be introduced and larger cereal stocks set aside to guard against price volatility. It also called for "safety nets" to be established for those most at risk from hunger.

It said more than a third of the world's cereals were being used for animal feed, and that this proportion was expected to rise to a half by 2050. It proposed using recycled food waste as an environment-friendly alternative.

Steiner said innovative solutions were needed, like in Niger, where UNEP experts are studying how to preserve the estimated 60 percent of the onion crop that rots before market.

"We have a very serious problem on our planet," he said. "Simply ratcheting up the fertilizer and pesticide-led production methods of the 20th century is unlikely to address the challenge."

(Editing by David Clarke and Elizabeth Piper)

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