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Can Science and Technology Meet Global Food Production Needs?

04 October 2013

ANALYSIS - Future demand for food will define the shape of the livestock, agriculture and farming sectors and their support industries, writes Chris Harris.

While billions of Euros and dollars are being spent on research to improve crop, livestock and food production, the supply of food as populations grow in size and wealth will largely be determined by the climate and land availability.

However, while the demand for food is growing and people are getting wealthier, the proportion of household incomes that is being spent on food is now less than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

A changing global population, with an emerging growing middle class and changing eating habits has seen a switch to a more meat based diet.

According to Mario Pezzini, the director of the OECD Development Centre the global middle class is expected to grow from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 3.2 billion by 2020.

In the last 20 to 30 years red meat consumption globally has doubled and is expected to continue to accelerate.

As meat consumption grows, farming methods are also likely to change from the extensive grazing production of red meat to more feed lots that will use more wheat and grains for feed, according to Gordon Rennick from the pesticide control division of the Irish Department of Agriculture.

Speaking at the British Crop Production Council congress in Brighton this week, Mr Rennick said that this in turn will bring into question land availability and also the availability of water to irrigate the land and provide water for livestock.

At present, agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of the water used in the world with about 20 per cent of the global crop land being irrigated. The use of water for the production of grain and meat will become more critical as the demand for food increases and as it takes between 1,000 and 3,000 litres of water to produce a kilogramme of rice and 13,000 to 15,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of grain fed beef and 1,500 litres to produce a kilo of grain.

“There is an increase in the number of hectares of land that need irrigating, so water availability will become more and more important,” said Mr Rennick.

Not only will there be a need to conserve water and for more water and irrigation, but there will also be a need for more land and the growing population requires more grain both for human and livestock consumption.

In all it is estimated that there will be a need for an additional 300 million hectares of land to grow an additional 255 million tonnes of wheat, 48 million tonnes of barley, 322 million tonnes of maize, 95 million tonnes of soybeans, 263 million tonnes of rice sand 22 million tonnes of rapeseed to feed the extra 2.5 billion people that will populate the world between now and 2050.

The extra 300 million hectares is an area the size of India, Mr Rennick told the delegates at the BCPC congress.

The alternatives available to meet the needs of this growing population are also to maximise crop production from existing land resources and also to reduce crop spoilage.

These alternatives will all require extra research and development in cultivar enhancement, crop protection, water usage, agricultural machinery and even laboratory production of food.

The other alternatives are to encourage people in developing countries to have smaller families or to accept that more people will suffer from starvation.

With a need for improved yields in crops and increased production Mr Rennick said that the future is looking bright for those not only producing food but also in the sector producing products to help enhance production.

In particular, companies producing plant protection products and the chemical pesticide industry should have a bright future if the sector can overcome concerns over its image and regulatory constraints – and he said that in the EU the chemical pesticide industry is more constrained than in any other developed country.

Chris Harris

Chris Harris

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