The ‘Future of Food and Farming’ a report by Foresight, a government think tank on global futures, lays out the challenges of feeding a rapidly expanding global population. Against a background of climate change, diminishing fresh water supplies, and fossil fuel depletion farming must feed a population expected to increase from around six and a half billion now to over nine billion by 2050.
Worryingly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts a decline in global food production as a result of changing rainfall patterns, loss of water supply for irrigation, increased pest and pathogen outbreaks, greater fire risk and increasing levels of ground level ozone.
Greater frequency of extreme weather events such as storms, flooding and droughts is likely to increase the uncertainty of food production and lead to years in which there is serious global undersupply. In addition, the switch to increasing use of biofuels is reducing the area available for agriculture.
Fuel dependency and waste
Modern agriculture is dependent on oil, not just a fuel source but in the production of pesticides and fertilisers and in processing, packaging and distribution of food. Oil represents about 43per cent of the world’s energy use, but dominates transport, with over 96per cent of transport fuel coming from oil. Food security in the UK is strongly associated with issues around energy security, illustrated dramatically when supermarket food stocks began to run out after just one week of the fuel tanker driver strikes in 2000.
But food security should be not be thought of simply as increasing national food self sufficiency. Food security encompasses a robust and responsive domestic food industry, as well as reliable food imports, and food distribution systems.
Waste in the food chain also has a major impact on both food security and greenhouse (GHG) emissions. The UK currently wastes a third of all food bought for home consumption. Improved understanding of waste in food production, processing, distribution and consumption, could increase food self-reliance and reduce GHG emissions.
Ecosystems support agriculture
We need a thriving viable and sustainable agriculture industry in the UK which is able to support national food security. The Foresight report highlights the importance of interconnectedness across policy areas relating to energy, water, land use, ecosystem services and biodiversity.
Productive agriculture relies on a stable and thriving ecosystem to provide the services for planned production – clean and plentiful water, pollinating insects and a balance between crop pests and their predators, healthy soils, clean air etc – and to provide the genetic resources for future development. Trees, woodland and other natural habitats and resources should not be seen as luxuries to be balanced against the needs of people, but rather as vital in securing them.
It seems likely that as a result of changing climate and a growing world population there will be increased pressure on land in the UK and globally for food production. Food security will require the development of robust systems for production and distribution. Such systems can only develop if the natural environment is thriving and resilient. Conservation of UK woodland and increasing tree cover is part of a range of actions essential to ensure the natural environment can support human needs including clean water, adaptation to climate change, food production and other natural resources.
Mike Townsend, Senior Advisor