By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - Governments must work toward a major shift toward small-scale farming if endemic food crises are to be overcome and production boosted to support the global population, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
In its annual World Economic and Social Survey, it said a transformation from large-scale and intensive systems of agriculture was vital if growing environmental and land degradation was to be avoided.
The food crisis of 2007-08 and a price spike this year "have revealed deep structural problems in the global food system and the need to increase resources and innovation in agriculture so as to accelerate food production," the survey declared.
Food production, it said, would have to increase between 70 and 100 per cent by 2050 to sustain a world population that would have grown by 35 per cent from the present 6.9 billion to around 9 billion by that time.
"With current agricultural technology, practices and land-use patterns, this cannot be achieved without further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and land degradation," the survey argued.
In its turn, the resulting environmental degradation would undermine any growth in food productivity.
Of the nearly one seventh of the global population, some 925 million people who are undernourished -- or lacking access to enough food to make possible an active and healthy life -- 98 per cent live in developing countries, according to the survey.
Two thirds of them are concentrated in seven countries -- Bangladesh, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan. Overall, 578 million are in Asia and the Pacific and 239 million in sub-Saharan Africa.
The worst drought in 60 years in the Horn of Africa has sparked a severe food crisis and high malnutrition rates, with parts of Kenya and Somalia experiencing pre-famine conditions, the United Nations said last week.
The survey said achieving food security would provide a long-term solution to hunger and malnutrition, easing price volatility and protecting the environment.
It would require a radical change in existing policies, but this would result "in a strengthening of currently fragmented systems of innovation and an increase in resources for agricultural development and sustainable resource management."
"The main challenge is to improve incentives so that they promote and lead to the development of sustainable agriculture by small farm holders," said the survey, drawn up by economists in the U.N.'s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
"Evidence has shown that for most crops the optimal farm is small in scale and that it is at this level that most gain in terms of both sustainable productivity increases and rural poverty reduction can be achieved."
But to ensure that small farmers were viable, especially in the face of tougher international competition, strengthening of marketing chains and quality standards, they must have greater access to credits and grants.
(Editing by Stephanie Nebehay)