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Maintaining adequate global food supplies at a time of rapidly rising population, significant economic growth, increasing food and stockfeed demand, changing climate, declining natural resources, trade liberalisation and regional disturbances is a critical issue for mankind.
To meet this life threatening challenge, we must adopt scientifically sound and sustainable agricultural practices.
Science plays a major role in feeding the word, as clearly demonstrated by the green revolution post 2nd World War. However, future food security challenges will increasingly require a multi-disciplinary approach, involving environmental, economic, social and political solutions.
World leaders increasingly realise that feeding the world with diminishing resources is a massive task and greater cooperation between countries, governments and scientific disciplines is required.
Interestingly, while the need to have food on their plate is shared by all consumers, the more affluent are now demanding their food should also be clean, green and ethically and sustainably produced.
Alarmingly, this is happening as the stockpile of wheat has dropped to its lowest level since 1980 - sufficient to feed the world for just 12 weeks. Food prices are soaring worldwide, while crude oil prices have doubled shipping and fertiliser costs. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that by 2050, grain output has to rise 50% and meat output has to double.
Population growth, rising incomes, the declining rate of agricultural productivity trends, climate change and the increased use of grain and sugar cane for biofuel production are leading to a competitive surge in food commodity demand. This is occurring in an environment where land and water constraints will limit agricultural production growth. Total urban population will double, changing diets as well as overall demand, because urbanites tend to eat more meat products.
As every human is a net consumer of food, balancing the needs and merits of nutrition, bio-energy, the environment and livelihoods are global concerns. For these reasons, integrating whole aspects of agriculture and the food industry is important in the future.
I see five major trends in the global agriculture and food industry.
Firstly, food production must be increased substantially by the mid 21st century to feed a world population projected to increase from 6.8 billion to 9 billion. The challenge is to double world food production output by 2050, while using less land, far less water and fewer nutrients, while watching the ‘hovering cloud' of climate variability and change.
Secondly, economic development is increasing faster than expected in most countries. With economic growth comes a rapidly changing food preference, increasing purchasing power and greater demand for high standards of food quality. About 40% of the increase in world grain production now comes from increase in yields and 60% comes from allocating more land under cultivation. However, increased future food production must come from shrinking land, water and other natural resources, meaning increased productivity per unit of land.
The third trend is the impact of agriculture on the environment and our natural resources. An example is the emerging global shortage of water for urban consumption, industrial use and agricultural purposes.
The world's two billion farmers, as guardians of much of what is left of the natural landscape, hold the fate of thousands of threatened species and the world's remaining forests in their hands. Agriculture currently uses 75% of the world's fresh water and its runoff has degraded the earth's major rivers, estuaries and even seas.
The fourth trend is the escalating fossil fuel price and the growing popularity of biofuels, which is driving demand for grain crops (corn and oil seeds) and sugar cane. Increasing fossil fuel prices pose a major risk to agriculture production and transportation costs, leading to increased price volatility. This presents a serious issue since it takes over arable land and diverts resources from food production. By 2020 we're likely to burn 400 million tonnes of grain a year just to keep our cars on the road - equal to the world rice crop.
Billions of subsidy dollars have been poured into developing sugar and grain-based ethanol and biodiesel to help wean rich economies from their addiction to carbon-blenching fossil fuels, the overwhelming source of human-made global warming. As soaring prices for staples bring more of the planet's most vulnerable people face-to-face with starvation, the image of first generation biofuels has changed from climate saviour to misguided ‘experiment'.
The fifth trend is climate change and its impact on agriculture. Potential changes in climate may reduce productivity and output in agricultural industries in major producing countries, in the medium to long terms. Several analyses indicate future climate changes and associated declines in agricultural productivity and global economic activity may affect global production of key commodities. For example, global wheat, rice, beef, dairy and sugar production could decline by 2 - 6% by 2030 and 5 - 11% by 2050.
The agricultural sector must maintain strong productivity growth to cope with the pressures emerging from climate change and variability. Agriculture occupies 40% of the world's free land surface and is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse emissions.
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