Time for another agriculture revolution

A scientific consensus exists that three of the most important 21st-century issues are food security, depleting natural resources and climate change – agriculture is at the heart of this trilemma

Global food demand will rise by at least 60 per cent over the next 35 years, but supplying this production will be challenged by increasingly scarce natural resources, such as land and freshwater, and the impact of climate change on production.

The implication is already apparent – over the past decade, global agricultural prices have averaged 82 per cent above their level in the previous 25 years. While action to reduce food waste could make an important contribution, it will not be sufficient and a supply-side revolution will be necessary to solve the trilemma.

Demand for food rises with population growth, but a bigger influence is development as previously poor populations shift to meat and dairy-intensive diets. Grain production will need to rise to meet the demand for feedstock – as well as its growing use in bio-energy and industry – but arable land is steadily decreasing in response to soil erosion and urbanisation.

Moreover, the rate of growth for crop yields is declining; indeed, in Europe they have plateaued. A return to low-input-low-output systems cannot provide the necessary growth of production and the only practical response to the trilemma is sustainable intensification, defined as delivering the necessary increase in output while reducing the industry’s natural resource demands and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

More formally it involves a step-change in natural resource productivity (NRP). Biotechnology, and information and engineering technology underpin NRP growth. Advances in plant breeding will raise yields by enhancing the take-up of nutrients and climate adaption, while developments in livestock breeding deliver improvements in feed-conversions, health and disease resistance.

Precision farming – the fusing of information and engineering technology – involves remote sensing, data processing and automation. By bringing sensitivity to the timing and accuracy of input applications, it directly contributes to NRP growth as well as augmenting biotechnological advances.

Sustainable intensification requires research and development by breeders and agricultural engineers to generate and convert new knowledge into products and farming operations, but it is only when these are adopted by farmers that their benefits are captured.

Although precision technologies have the potential to deliver significantly lower operating costs, the investment outlays are high and so take-up depends on a farm’s ability to fund the necessary capital expenditure. In this respect, larger-scale farms would appear to have an inherent advantage. Economies of scale mean they are more likely to be profitable, have greater access to investment funds and a larger volume of output over which to spread the cost.

But scale alone is not sufficient. A positive attitude towards innovation and higher levels of human capital are also required not only to manage a larger enterprise, but also to interpret and act upon accurately the high volumes of data generated by precision farming.

The challenge of the agricultural trilemma will only be solved with a step-change to a more professionally managed industry rooted in high-tech industrial farming systems

Within the European Union, production is being concentrated on larger-scale farms, but progress is slow. About 70 per cent of EU holdings have an area of less than five hectares and around half are defined as semi-subsistent. In the absence of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) direct payments, some 80 per cent of EU farms would not break-even; indeed, the value added per labour unit for the EU’s largest farms is more than ten times that for the smallest farms.

At the current pace of change, it will be many years before EU agriculture arrives at an optimum structure. One way to speed up the rate of change would be swiftly to phase out direct payments. This would create scope to divert considerable funds to public sector agricultural R&D, while signalling to research centres that in future the European farming industry would be more capable of investing in capital intensive, knowledge-based solutions.

Unfortunately, the CAP has always been first and foremost a social policy and over recent years its relationship to food production has been further undermined by a growing burden of environmental objectives. Yet another benefit of phasing out direct payments would be the scope created for better targeted standalone environmental and rural economic policies.

Unfortunately, the chances of a policy revolution are slim and the authorities’ attempts to protect smaller-scale, less-efficient farms by raising hurdles for the adoption of advanced biotechnology are misguided. The challenge of the agricultural trilemma will only be solved with a step-change to a more professionally managed industry rooted in high-tech industrial farming systems.

Indeed, the farmer of the future will operate behind a bank of computer screens to deliver very high levels of NRP, while monitoring markets to maximise revenue. Although this is at odds with the unrealistic but widespread romantic image of farming, it is the only sustainable basis for the delivery of affordable food, environmental protection, animal welfare and a viable rural economy.

Also found in Agriculture