Feed the world

With the world set to add another two billion inhabitants in the next thirty years, how will we cope?

"You should eat to live, not live to eat" - perhaps unsurprisingly, Socrates was quite philosophical about food. He suggested that it is a means to an end; we should eat to get the energy we need to do more important things - like reading his book presumably. 

Food supply and security have become hot topics in recent decades: most recently, during food price spikes in 2008 and 2011 which followed crop failures; but also due to the growing awareness of the environmental impact of food production.

The number of people continues to grow, with the UN expecting a rise in the global population from 7.7bn people currently to 9.7bn by 2050. How will the food supply cope with this? Pressure on the amount of arable land is increasing as the world heats up, and more people means more space set aside for housing and other human infrastructure. When it comes to land, as Mark Twain said, “they’ve stopped making it”.

There are many other aspects to these worries. The world is getting richer, and whilst this is of course to be welcomed, the world is also moving to eating more resource-intensive foods. Diets are changing away from cereals towards meat and fish which tend to consume many multiples of the cereal to grow. For example, to produce 1 kilo of beef usually requires 7 kilos of cereal, and whilst the world’s population is rising 1% a year, meat consumption is growing by 2%.

Climate change has also been causing chaos in food supply, often from droughts causing large-scale crop failure. These are believed by many to have sparked the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in North Africa as droughts pushed rural dwellers into cities. And water scarcity is an issue in itself.

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food”
George Bernard Shaw

With more people requiring more food, transportation increases across supply chains and, of course, there is all that packaging heading for the bin as well. In addition, the UN estimates that around 30% of food production ends up in waste, which presents a huge challenge but perhaps an opportunity as well.

How will the world deal with these issues? Many are not new of course. Thomas Malthus famously wrote in 1798 of his fears that the ‘power of population’ was far superior to ‘the power of the earth to produce subsistence’. There have, of course, been terrible famines and many remain undernourished; but over the course of time, Malthus has been proven spectacularly wrong, especially as advances in human health have caused people to live longer despite larger populations than he could foresee.

Malthus got it wrong largely due to his failure to realise how ingenious humans are. Technological breakthroughs over the course of the past couple of centuries changed everything. Mechanisation has dramatically increased productivity from the days of ‘harrowing clods’. An illustration of this is that in 2018 a combine harvester with blades 14 metres wide enabled an Illinois farmer to harvest a record 63,770 bushels of corn – an astonishing 3 million heads – in a 12 hour shift.

In the early part of the last century, the Haber-Bosch process allowed the mass production of ammonia for fertiliser – ‘turning air into bread’. Crop protection chemicals, such as herbicides that prevent weeds competing for water, sun and soil nutrients, have further improved yields. In seeds, we have seen an increase in both ‘phenotyping’ – matching strains of crops to their environment – and genetic modification whereby genes are tweaked to improve resistance to insects and disease, for example. Many of these are still to be rolled out in the developing world.

These developments and more have ensured that the Malthusian catastrophe has never come to fruition. The good news is that we continue to innovate and another tech-driven agricultural revolution is upon us. One of these developments is the application of Artificial Intelligence to farming, especially in the developed world. Huge volumes of data drawn from sensors, drones and climate monitors can be processed to learn patterns and trends, and decide on which crops to plant and where, the optimal time for planting and harvesting, where and when to apply chemicals and fertilizers, commodity price forecasts, and predictions on the spread of disease.

Vertical farming – the process of stacking plants in layers in controlled environments to optimise space – is starting to be seen. In fact, you will start to see these in your local Marks & Spencer soon, as they aim to grow herbs in store to cut down on their carbon footprint.

Beyond technology, people are making changes in an attempt to reduce the environmental impact of food, as seen in the ‘No Red October’ movement which asks carnivores to cut out red meat during this month. Whilst the number of British vegetarians remains relatively low, the recent emergence of companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods which use plant-based products to simulate beef, pork and chicken make it far easier to reduce meat consumption. Longer term, mass-produced lab-grown meat may be a possibility.

The efficiencies that technology can bring to farming over the next decade, when combined with the potential of reduced consumption of meat, offer a credible solution and may head off a possible global food crisis. We can expect to see farmers become increasingly reliant on smartphones and software in place of spades and sickles as they endeavour to sustainably feed the world.

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