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Browse issues With a growing population demanding more food, and an agricultural community constrained by lack of land and water while battling demands for greater sustainability, the challenge of feeding the world is falling at the feet of engineers.
Food shortages tend to be a problem for the developing world. Images of famine in Africa or floods in Asia have tugged at the heartstrings and loosened the purse strings of the affluent and influential.
But that scenario is changing almost as fast as the global economic landscape. It is no longer a regional problem but a very real threat facing the whole of humanity. To feed the growing global population we will need to produce 60 per cent more food by the middle of this century. That is a challenge that cannot be taken too lightly given the increased competition for ever scarcer land and water. To compound matters, agriculture is under great pressure to increase its sustainability.
The solutions are, as always, complicated, mired in economic, political and social wrangling. But one thing is apparent: technology has a key role to play. Engineering is often overlooked as part of the solution, but the roles it can play are profound – on the farm and throughout the supply chain.
The UK has recognised the danger and is mobilising its political will allied with its research and technology institutions. Global Food Security is a multi-agency programme bringing together the research interests of the research councils, executive agencies and government departments. To drive the programme forward it appointed a global food security champion two years ago. Professor Tim Benton, from the University of Leeds, is an interdisciplinary scientist focusing on the relationship between food production and the environment.
"The human population is growing, adding 35 per cent more mouths by the middle of the century. At the same time the average person is getting richer," he says. Richer people eat more food and more resource-intensive food: beef, for example, converts plant nutrients to muscle at about a quarter the efficiency that chickens do.
"Richer people eating both more and more luxurious food is entirely human and has been a hallmark of our behaviour throughout history, but it contributes to a projected demand growth of about 60 per cent by mid-century if current trends continue," Benton adds.
Demands on nature
The World Wildlife Fund's 2012 'Living Planet' report suggests that "if everyone lived like an average resident of the USA, a total of four Earths would be required to generate humanity's annual demand on nature".
Growing more is not as straightforward as it has perhaps been in recent decades. Benton points out that there is no more land available, perhaps even less. Then there is increasing competition for water; by 2050 over 50 per cent of the world's population may exist in areas where demand has outstripped supply. "Agricultural production currently uses about 70 per cent of the world's available fresh water, and clearly societal and economic use of water (by industry) also exerts a growing demand on a finite supply," he adds. "Thus, any increase in production to meet an increase in demand cannot rely on a proportional increase in water use in many areas of the world.
Finally, much of the global production growth in recent decades has been underpinned by the use of a broad range of agro-chemicals, including synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. "These can have negative environmental impacts and in some areas there is a considerable need to reduce their use for that reason," Benton continues. "Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser also requires significant energy to manufacture, contributing to agriculture's large greenhouse gas footprint [of 20-30 per cent of global emissions];…