As the world’s population will increase to almost 10 billion by 2050, farm production will have to practically double to meet food demand. Given that urbanisation is increasingly encroaching on farmland and competing for water, sustainable production will necessitate overcoming natural resource constraints and the adverse impacts of climate change, whilst ensuring availability and affordability.
Food is more than just some calories on a plate that hopefully tastes appealing. It is inextricably linked to both human health and the health of our planet. The food supply chain has a huge impact on the environment, for example, by being responsible for more than 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions or by using up 70% of the available global freshwater. To be able to feed the world in the future, not only does production have to increase, but our food’s footprint needs to be reduced as well.
Consumption habits are changing
Food is the single strongest lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability on earth. Food consumption habits are changing, especially in developed countries. Vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise, demand for locally and organically produced food is growing, and people are generally more concerned about their health and what impact nutrition has on it. Besides health, ethical questions concerning animal welfare and climate change concerns are driving forces for individuals to shift their consumption towards animal product alternatives. Plant-based meat promises to provide a similar tasting experience at a fraction of the environmental footprint. Lab-grown meat might mean not having to change eating habits while not having to slaughter animals.
Although a growing awareness of health and environmental factors are stabilising food consumption per capita in western countries, it is important to remember that around 70% of future growth in food consumption will occur in developing countries. As these countries progress resource intensity, many will ultimately face a decision on trading food security for economic growth. Repeatedly, the limiting resource will be water.
Advances in food science and technology
Advances in agricultural technology, globalisation and rising living standards continue to increase the availability of food. As economies develop, the consumption of low-preparation, energy-rich processed foods are gradually replacing the intake of basic staples. This trend is responsible for the considerable growth of ingredients such as vegetable oils, sugars and meat, all of which have increased more than 100% over the last fifty years.
In combination with seed technology and fertilisers, irrigation has been a key driver in advancing agricultural productivity. Global water use has grown at double the rate of population growth over the last century and irrigation now accounts for 70% of total use. In many regions, the over-extraction of groundwater and increasing competition between agriculture, industry and society for ever-scarcer water resources is escalating. The finite nature of our water and other resources is fuelling the drive for greater productivity and efficiency gains in agricultural production.
In addition to biotechnology breakthroughs, precision farming, and improving farm practices the concept of virtual water will also be an important contributor to finding sustainable solutions to feeding the world. As incidences of water stress grow, importing rather than growing irrigation-intensive bulk agricultural commodities will allow valuable water resources to be reallocated towards higher value-adding industrial, environmental, or social uses. Consequently, agricultural production will increasingly be redirected to countries rich in natural resources.