Time for another
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
BY SEAN RICKARD JULY 29, 2015
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
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
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
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.