Last week, we heard Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor speak about a Sustainable Future for Food and Farming, at the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI). He painted a pretty stark picture of the world, taking the audience through sobering charts and stats about the challenges posed by climate change, urbanisation and the burgeoning population. The headline figure was that we can expect another one billion people in the world, by 2025, split more or less 50/50 between Africa and Asia. For Africa, that is an increase of 50% on its current population.
The overarching objective highlighted was that we need to achieve sustainable intensification of farming – the ability to produce more by using less. But how?
With the increase in population, even greater strain will be put on the planet’s precious food supplies and water resources. We have seen a reduction in the length of the growing season in Africa caused by climate change, and a deteriorating land base thanks to deforestation. We cannot just grow more land! Increased demand drives food prices up, and subsequent famine and drought spurs desperation and civil unrest.
Key aquifers all over the world, for instance in Saudi Arabia, India, and even the USA are severely strained, with one in Colorado, USA losing up to four metres a year. Changing diet in the developing world is also adding to the water stress. The demand for meat is correlated to economic growth, and unfortunately there is a marked water intensity increase between producing 1kg of wheat (1,300 litres) and 1kg of beef (15,000 litres).
The Challenge – Sustainable intensification
Is the ultimate solution population control or enforced vegetarianism? Hopefully not, but transforming to an agricultural system which is intensified and resilient, whilst also being sustainable and low emission is no mean feat!
Sir John talked through a range of practical solutions to significantly increase farming yields, from genetic modification, genomics and agrochemicals, to precision farming, agroforestry and fertilizer deep placement (supergranules), the latter of which are already being used in Bangladesh
to increase rice yields. However, he lamented that an increase in the investment in the science of climate smart agriculture is direly needed.
“Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink”
Desalination, in which seawater is converted into freshwater for human consumption or irrigation, is a high tech solution already being used in arid coastal regions around the world. In Saudi Arabia, the
Al-Khafji solar-powered desalination plant is expected to be completed by the end of this year, and will produce 30,000 cubic meters of desalinated water per day to meet the needs of some 100,000 people.
As with energy, a lower hanging fruit in a sustainable future for food and water is to reduce wastage. In the developing world about 30% of food doesn’t even reach the consumers, due to pests and other inefficiencies in the supply chain. In the developed world we lose 30% of the food due to waste. Valuable water is lost through leaky pipes in aged water infrastructure systems for which crucial upgrades are long overdue.
The Future’s bright?
If we don’t do something, then we can probably expect dramatic amounts of hunger and suffering. We may well also see a proliferation of failed states in Africa, and throughout the world. In spite of this, Sir John was optimistic overall about the future. He felt that the issues of sustaining food and water supplies to meet a growing population have been pushed up the government’s agenda here in the UK, and in many other countries, and are being seriously considered. Governments and NGOs are promoting sustainable agricultural practices with environmental and social benefits, which offer income incentivisation for farmers in the developing world. All of these measures are at least far less fraught than global greenhouse gas policy discussions.
The IM WHEB Sustainability Fund invests in technologies that reduce waste and helps to conserve water. Companies such as Trimble Navigation provide technologies to support precision agriculture while Telvent, part of Schneider Electric, provides weather forecasting and climate modelling for farmers – both helping to improve yields and reduce resource inputs and waste. Suez Environnement, a waste and water utility company, and Tetra Tech, a US-based environmental consultancy, both have businesses involved in developing and operating water desalination plants.
WHEB Asset Management’s sister company WHEB Partners invests in resource efficient private companies, for example Exosect the efficient pest management company, and EVAP, which has developed a packaging film with unique properties that extends the shelf life of fresh produce. Another example is Weedingtech which has an innovative weed control product which kills weeds using water, steam and natural foam. This allows for increased yields in farming crops, solves the problem of crops ever increasing resistance to traditional herbicides, whilst not contaminating water with glyphosate.