As the world’s population grows towards 9 billion, farmers are being asked to produce more food while using fewer resources, adapting to and mitigating climate change and protecting the environment. Our colleagues at Croplife International asked former UK chief scientist Professor Sir John Beddington, now Senior Adviser at the Oxford Martin School, how plant science can help feed the world sustainably.
What is the "perfect storm?
Some key things are happening in the world and all are coming together to create a “perfect storm” of challenges, driven by pressures from a rapidly increasing population. Over the next 15 years the African and Asian populations will both grow by half a billion people, which means there will be a huge demand for food, water and energy. Also, as urbanization is growing we need to ask: can the rural population sustain the growing urban population? And at the same time, we have to deal with climate change.
So this is the perfect storm. We need to increase food production and become more efficient at using water and energy, while mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Isn't climate change tomorrow's problem?
No. The frequency of extreme weather events such as floods and droughts is already increasing and causing serious disruptions to food production. This is very problematic for the environment and our ability to feed the world. And it is going to get worse.
How do you know climate change will get worse?
Climate is on a 20 year time delay. That means today’s climate events have resulted partly from emissions from the 1990s. So even if we stopped all emissions immediately, we will still see an impact on our climate over the next 20 years. The frequency of extreme weather events brought about by climate change will increase with a serious disruption to food production from drought and floods which will lead to significant volatility in the supply of food. This is happening now, and must be dealt with now.
Will "business as usual" farming methods work?
If we continue to produce food as we currently do, we can meet the demand for 40% more food by 2030, but this will create serious and unsustainable pressures on water resources, energy, fossil fuels and our greenhouse gases will increase.
So what can we do to feed the world sustainably?
There has to be a big change in farming — we need to adopt climate smart agricultural practices. It comes down to farming sustainability by using less water and fewer inputs, such as fertilizers, with more efficient applications. Biotechnology and conventional breeding will also provide improved seeds that can help increase crop production sustainably.
Could organic farming feed the world?
Simple arithmetic tells you that organic farming is not the answer. Look at the yields of organic agriculture compared to conventional – it doesn’t add up.
What about plant biotechnology? Can it help feed the world?
Yes, and biotech will become more ubiquitous. The EU is one region that has discarded it for ideological reasons, but we will see an increase in the need for it and more sophisticated ways it can be used. If we can use technology to increase crop yield per hectare this takes pressure off the environment.
So can we feed nine billion people without ruining the environment?
You ask if we can feed nine billion people, but without a decrease in current fertility rates, it will actually be much larger by 2050. But yes, we can feed everybody sustainably. But in order to do so, we need to be more productive and embrace agricultural practices that reduce pressures on the environment.