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Growing challenge will shape the future of farming

For decades agriculture has been a generally low-profile business and the ability to feed the world has often been taken for granted.

Sure, there was a vague awareness that somewhere people were going hungry, but those consumers with a voice – that is those in the industrialised world – expected and had plenty of food at reasonable prices.

To the extent that there was any government intervention, it was mainly aimed at supporting farmers rather than consumers, as was the case with the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy.

But that has changed now. A range of factors have combined to put the global food system under real stress, leading to demand outstripping supply. At the same time, there is a growing recognition that global agribusiness has negative impacts as well as positives. The recent scandal over the discovery of horsemeat in a range of processed meals in Europe and the pressure, on both sides of the Atlantic, to ban neonicotinoid pesticides because of their alleged impact on bee populations, are just two examples that illustrate the complexity of the sector.

The food and agriculture sector is going through a period of adjustment to several complex factors

“The food and agriculture sector is going through a period of adjustment to several complex factors, including the boom in demand during the last decade, and the shifts in supply and prices that are still taking place, as well as a growing number of external agendas,” says Justin Sherrard of Rabobank’s food and agribusiness research unit. These external agendas include finance, health, sustainability and energy, and they “have now crossed over into the sector in a significant way”.

“In the coming decades, a growing and increasingly affluent global population will demand a greater quantity, variety and nutritional value of food than the world has ever produced before,” according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). “Meeting this demand will require a 70 per cent increase in food production, challenging a natural resource base that is already under significant strain. It will also require major increases in investment – by up to 50 per cent for developing countries alone – in an era of economic crisis and austerity,”

Addressing these challenges requires a “new vision for agriculture”, the WEF says, “one which leverages available resources to deliver economic growth and opportunity, improved food security and nutrition, and environmental sustainability through a renewed agriculture sector”.

Yet sustainable agriculture means different things to different people. For some organic farming, which eschews the inputs associated with “industrial agriculture”, such as pesticides and fertiliser, is the way forward. “Even in the short term, the unsustainability of industrial agriculture is now apparent and it faces increasing restrictions, both natural and political or regulatory on its future growth,” says Geoff Burke, managing director of Agro-Ecological Investment, which invests in organic farms.

For others, the appliance of science is crucial. Environmentalist Mark Lynas, author of High Tide and Six Degrees, says the organic movement is “rejectionist” and there is no reason why avoiding chemicals should be better for the environment. Once fervently opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Mr Lynas recently very publicly reversed his opposition, saying he used to think that “mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get”.

Now he believes GMOs can cut pesticide use, save poor farmers money and help deal with the challenge of feeding nine billion-plus people by 2050 in a climate-changed world with limited water. “The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food,” he adds.

There may be disagreement on the best way forward, but there is no doubt that sustainability will be at the forefront of thinking about agriculture for decades to come.