Sign In

At the centre of a complex web

Growing food used to be a far simpler proposition. Subject to the vagaries of the weather, the farmer grew his crop and took it to market where he achieved the best price possible.

But now the global agricultural sector lies at the centre of a complex web of relationships and interconnections that makes it increasingly difficult to fully understand. Agriculture is also vulnerable to threats ranging from flash floods to horsemeat being passed off as beef.

One thing is clear, though. Over the past few years, farmers around the world have found it increasingly difficult to meet the demands of consumers. As a result, anything that could adversely affect harvests, from extreme weather events such as last year’s drought in the United States to 2008’s high oil prices that pushed up the cost of fertiliser and transporting food, feeds directly into sharp price rises.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Food Price Index, which stood at 90.4 in 2000, had reached 209.8 in January 2013 meaning that the price of food has more than doubled since the start of the century.

The price of food has more than doubled since the start of the century

The consequences of this “agflation” are stark. For Western consumers, it means paying more for our food at a time when we are struggling with a period of austerity. But in some countries it can have far more serious consequences. Price rises are seen as one of the contributory factors to the Arab Spring, for example, partly because the region is so dependent on imports to feed its people. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the seeds of the uprisings in North Africa in 2011 were partly sown the year before in Russia, where drought caused the harvest to fail and led to an export ban.

However, such extreme weather events are only one contributor to the tightening of the global food market. One of the most obvious reasons for increased demand is simply that there are more people now. The world’s population recently passed seven billion and it is projected to top nine billion by 2050.

At the same time, many of those people are becoming wealthier, particularly in the emerging market giants such as Brazil, India, China, Indonesia and Nigeria, and they want to eat like we do in the West. “The effect of population growth is compounded by significant expansion of the world’s middle-class population, with dietary preferences shifting to meat and dairy,” says Justin Sherrard, global strategist at Rabobank. These dietary changes have a disproportionate effect on global food markets because the resources required – in terms of water, feed and energy – to produce meat and dairy products are so much bigger than those for grains and other staple crops.

These trends are being exacerbated by urbanisation. More than half the world’s population now live in cities, no longer have the ability to produce their own food and are more reliant on commercial food supplies.

All of these factors mean that “in the next 40 years, we will have to provide the same amount of food as we did in the previous 8,000 years”, says Dr Ann-Marie Brouder, principal sustainability adviser in the food team at Forum for the Future.

Yet at the same time as we face this unprecedented demand for food, we are also running up against the physical limits of what is possible. According to the Global Footprint Network: “We are using more resources than the Earth can provide. We are in global ecological overshoot.

“Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. The result is that we are depleting the resources on which human life and biodiversity depend.”

In the next 40 years, we will have to provide the same amount of food as we did in the previous 8,000 years

Our attempts to meet higher demand for food are putting more pressure on a number of resources, including land, soil, water, biodiversity and forests. The European Union says that, while many valuable habitats in Europe are maintained by extensive farming, “inappropriate agricultural practices and land use can also have an adverse impact on natural resources, such as pollution of soil, water and air, fragmentation of habitats and loss of wildlife”.

Unless action is taken, adds the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “increases in population and per-capita consumption of energy and animal products will exacerbate nutrient losses, pollution levels and land degradation, further threatening the quality of our water, air and soil, affecting climate and biodiversity”.

And while this is exactly the time when we need to be able to increase crop yields, the opposite is happening. The last time there were fears over food output, science responded with the “Green Revolution” during the 1960s and 1970s. “The breeding of improved varieties, combined with the expanded use of fertilisers, other chemical inputs and irrigation, led to dramatic yield increases in Asia and Latin America,” says the IFPRI.

However, the rate of yield increases is now starting to slow, says Dr Ed Hawkins, from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) at the University of Reading.

Critics of intensive farming, such as Greenpeace, say it only works by creating monocultures that need heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers. These, they say, cause pollution in soil, water and air, and contribute to eutrophication or an overload of nutrients from fertilisers that create “dead zones” in waterways. Yet others say that only intensive agriculture will enable us to feed the world.

Overlaying all these issues is climate change, the impact of which is likely to be more apparent in agriculture than any other sector of the economy. Indeed, many think it is already taking its toll in the severe droughts in America last year and a host of other extreme weather events around the world.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that temperature rises of between 1.8F and 5.4F will change rain and snowfall patterns, reducing yields of many staple crops, and cut the productivity of livestock farmers by the middle of the century. “Climate change will exacerbate the stresses already occurring from weeds, insects and disease. Beyond 2050, changes are expected to include shifts in crop production areas, increases in pest control expenses and greater disease prevalence,” USDA says.

Meanwhile, water resources will come under increasing stress, says Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of Nestlé. “By 2030, water withdrawals will exceed natural renewals by 60 per cent.‪ Acute water shortages, which will directly affect a third of the world’s population by 2030, will also ultimately lead to a critical shortage of food the world over. Less food will result in higher prices, and plunge millions into poverty and famine.‪”

There is widespread recognition that there are imbalances in a system where, according to USDA, “each year roughly one third of the food produced in the world is lost or wasted – equal to around 1.3 billion tons” and where, at the same time as almost a billion people around the world go hungry, there is also a growing problem of obesity.

Meanwhile, farmers in the developing world do not have enough inputs such as fertiliser to produce the food they need, while in the industrialised nations’ farmers are using too many inputs and damaging the environment. As the subtitle of a recent UNEP report says, we need to produce more food with less pollution.

“Sustainable agriculture is about improving agricultural productivity, while also improving the environment in which crops are grown, and about minimising the environmental impact of existing practices,” says Ben Caldecott, head of policy at Climate Change Capital. “There is a tricky balance between the need for intensification and the need to respect natural resources.”

There is also a role for the consumer. The UN’s top climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri says: “People should consider eating less meat as a way of combating global warming. UN figures suggest that meat production puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transport.”

The ongoing scandal over horsemeat illustrates the lengths to which the food industry has to go to supply the cheap food consumers demand. Customers must demand more information about where their food comes from and how it is grown, says Caroline Drummond, chief executive of Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF).

“We have a responsibility as consumers to understand what we are buying, to question where food comes from and to look for farm assurance labels that show farmers have gone the extra mile for the environment,” she says.