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The Future Of Farming

While population growth is expected to slow, the UN still projects a global population of over 9 billion people by 2050, up from around 7.4 billion in recent years.  It requires an increase in food production of around 70% from 2007 to meet the needs of this growing population.

By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor

In 1980 economist Julian Simon and biologist Paul Ehrlich famously entered into a wager in the journal Social Science Quarterly, with Simon engaging Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was, after the latter had made a number of pessimistic predictions about resource shortages, most notably in his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb, in which he foretold of the apparent crisis mankind was facing as a result of population growth outstripping the supply of food and other resources.

Ehrlich had based his notion on a seemingly logical Malthusian fallacy, after Thomas Malthus had famously predicted back in 1798 that while population growth tends to be exponential, growth in food supply tends to be linear.  As such, he predicted food shortages would inevitably curtail the growth of the global population.

It’s a prediction that both Malthus and Ehrlich have gotten spectacularly wrong, as periods such as the Green Revolution saw food yields grow considerably, and allow a rapidly growing global population to be amply fed.

While population growth is expected to slow, the UN still projects a global population of over 9 billion people by 2050, up from around 7.4 billion in recent years.  It requires an increase in food production of around 70% from 2007 to meet the needs of this growing population.  A recent paper for the UK government goes further, and suggests that food production will need to double in the next 30 years to meet demand.

The paper highlights that this will require significant improvements in farming yields, with current growth rates in crops such as wheat, maize, rice, and soybeans growing at considerably lower rates than the 2.4% required by population changes.

Demand pressures

The demand pressures are also being driven by increases in global income levels, with growth particularly strong in developing countries, where increases in wealth are seeing growing demand for protein-based diets that have been the western preserve for so long.  

In developed countries, however, the issue is less one of malnutrition and more one of obesity, with populations increasingly health conscious.  This is fueling a transition away from starch-based crops, such as corn, towards more plant-based proteins, such as soybeans.

As production intensifies to meet this demand, it is highly likely to place an intense strain on the environment at a time when the planet is increasingly unwilling to do this.  The sector is already believed to produce around 25% of all greenhouse gases, which is comparable to all electricity and heat production combined.  It is also a significant polluter of waterways, with water usage also often far exceeding the replenishment rates, with droughts now commonplace from California to Australia.  Add in the impact on soil degradation and biodiversity and it’s clear that the environmental impact of agriculture today is considerable.

Technological improvements

It’s a sector that is ripe with innovation however, as it attempts to meet the sizable challenge of producing more and more, with an increasingly minimal impact on the planet.  The report for the UK government highlights that 29% of farms around the world are investing in innovation-based projects to bolster their production without increasing the land they require to do so.

These innovations are in areas such as robotic farming and data-enabled precision agriculture.  Such approaches are likely to be useful, but on their own will unlikely be enough to make the required environmental impact unless they’re accompanied by changes in consumer behavior, such as in reductions in food waste and changes in dietary preferences.

“Moving to a more climate-resilient agricultural system would be needed to avoid increased price volatility and economic uncertainty affecting food security,” the authors say. “A recent study suggests increasing technologies, changing dietary habits and reducing waste will all be necessary interventions to achieve planetary sustainability.”

Coordination required

It’s an approach that requires coordination throughout the supply chain to deliver the expected results, with government policies also helping to support the desired changes in consumer attitudes.

“Studies have shown the importance of co-creation of agricultural knowledge to allow for adaptation of innovative practices and technology,” they conclude. “In 2011, the House of Lords EU Committee highlighted that this requires: better cooperation between farm businesses, advisory bodies and scientists; improved interdisciplinary research; and farmers becoming actively involved in setting agricultural research agendas.”

It’s a prescient reminder that while new technologies can be hugely enticing and attractive, for them to be effective they need to be considered along with a wide range of other factors.  There is little more important than being able to feed, and to sustain, the planet, and this has been a pressing concern for generations.  While history suggests we should be reluctant to regard our own generation as truly exceptional in the scale of our need, we should equally not dismiss concerns as something that technology will inevitably resolve.

The remainder of the articles this month will explore some of the issues involved in farming today, from the need to improve food security to the introduction of data into farming.  We hope you enjoy and find them interesting.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!
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