Even in rich countries, the shadow of food insecurity has returned, threatening to bring to an end a golden era of plenty. It had been quite a success story, with agricultural activity focused almost exclusively on ensuring the provision of cheap and abundant supplies of food and fibre. Only in the last ten years or so have the full environmental costs of this cornucopian plenty been brought to light.
For countries with spending power, the reassuring sight of supermarkets brimming with cheap, fresh produce from around the world, irrespective of season, has obscured the realities that lie behind that facade. Where all this stuff comes from and how it got there have been of little consequence to the average shopper – one of the reasons why farming in Britain has been marginalised in the national debate as just another struggling sector of the economy, a world away from its central position as a strategic resource not so long ago. Britain is more dependent on food imports now than at any time since the 1960s. Less than 60% of what we eat is grown here, leaving the nation vulnerable to supply and demand shocks and growing price volatility in international markets.
The possibility that the food abundance we are so used to might come to an end seems almost unimaginable. Yet the pressures now facing agricultural production and food supply are immense. A rising population in the UK (set to reach 70 million by 2030) is part of a global trend in which the same land mass must feed at least 9 billion people by 2050 – three times the global headcount in 1960. And the environment in which this challenge will have to be met is full of uncertainty.
Heading the list of hard to manage risks is climate change – which 38.4% of farmers in the UK consider is already affecting their business, according to a Farming Futures survey in 2010. There is still much debate about what the impacts are likely to be. Extreme weather is in the news, with fires in Russia and flooding in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Australia – the latter after a prolonged period of drought. Personal tragedy and damage to infrastructure will be compounded by longer-term economic consequences.
Rising temperatures are also expected to reduce yields of many staple crops. A recent modelling study in the US suggests there is a 'temperature tipping point' beyond which crop yields are likely to plummet. One model showed a potential drop of 82% in maize yields by the end of the century. Averaged out, global cereal production could be between 3% and 8% lower by 2050 because of climate change, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute – at exactly the time when we need those yields to be rising. The Institute argues that a rise of only one degree could play havoc with food production.
Getting farmers to think about mitigating and adapting to climate change might seem a forlorn task in such difficult times. Agriculture's emissions currently account for 8% of the UK total, according to the Department for Environment, Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (Defra). That may not sound like much, but a business as usual approach will mean that beyond 2020 the sector will contribute 28% of our permitted 2050 emissions. In 2000, the livestock sector globally accounted for 52% of the 'safe operating space' for greenhouse gas emissions. If growth forecasts from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are correct, this could rise to 72% by 2050. With no other industries stepping up to take the pain of additional reductions, farming's carbon and nitrous oxide efficiency will have to undergo a step change if the sector is to deliver its share.
And climate change is just the best known of a raft of environmental challenges confronting the sector. Water scarcity is rising in the public consciousness, though it's been a preoccupation for farmers for some time. There's fierce debate, though, over just how much water is involved. One study by The Water Footprint Network claims that 16,000 litres are needed to produce just one kilo of beef. Nonsense, says Eblex, the organisation supporting England's beef and lamb industry. Its own study gives the figure as a mere 67 litres! A lot depends on where in the world the beef is being produced, and certainly there are places where meat is a very thirsty business.
There's also the impact of artificial fertilisers on ecosystems to consider. Excessive application of nitrogen to enhance yields has been the primary reason behind the declining water quality of our rivers and lakes, through 'eutrophication', or artificial enrichment. But legislation to regulate how, when and where nitrogen might be applied could drive dairy farmers – who already struggle to get a decent price for their milk – out of business.
All this, of course, is assuming that artificial fertiliser is affordable in the first place. Rock phosphate, the basis of so much agricultural fertiliser, is selling at double its cost in 2006, prompting some commentators to predict 'peak phosphorus' as soon as 2033. Without phosphates, wheat yields could halve by the turn of the century.
This particular 'triple whammy' (input scarcity, declining production and rising demand) can only mean one thing: rising prices. Global food prices in January 2011 were higher than the previous spike reached when commodity prices hit the headlines in 2007/8. The FAO commodity index reached 231 points, outstripping the previous high of 213.5.
Paradoxically, rising resource and food prices might not be all bad news. In an era of cheap food, farmers have struggled to make the case that you get what you pay for when it comes to the quality and sustainability of food production. UK farmers have undoubtedly woken up to the efficiency challenge in energy, fertiliser and water use. For some, rising prices will mean more room for investment, and more motivation to widen the gap between production costs and factory gate prices by driving greater efficiency on farms. New soil management practices, more efficient application of fertilisers and smarter power use can all generate significant savings.
Food retailers are becoming noticeably more interested in their domestic supply chains, and many of them have made announcements in recent months about investing in sustainability on the farms that supply them. PepsiCo wants carbon and water footprint reductions of 50% on their farms in the next five years; Sainsbury's is investing £40 million in the next three years on increasing the resilience of its suppliers to climate change; and Morrisons has teamed up with the Prince of Wales to set out a blueprint for sustainable farming.
But perhaps the most significant positive trend in the last year has been farming's love affair with renewable energy. Despite shock stories in the Daily Mail about solar panels carpeting the countryside, and the Telegraph moaning that 3,000 British wind turbines stood idle over the recent cold period due to a lack of wind, the level of interest in these technologies amongst farmers remains high: 80% of farmers would like to put solar PV on their roofs, according to a joint survey by Farming Futures and Solarcentury in December last year.
In fact, there's such a blizzard of applications for field PV systems that, bewilderingly, the UK Government may intervene to stop too many solar parks getting the go-ahead.
Farmers are no longer 'on the back foot' when it comes to responding to the challenge of climate change and other sustainability issues. Just a few years ago, 'low-carbon farming' would have meant nothing to most UK farmers; now it's an important driver of new research, innovation and delivered solutions on the ground.
By. Jonathan Porritt
This article originally appeared in Green Futures magazine. Green Futures is the leading international magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures, published by Forum for the Future. Its aim is to demonstrate how a sustainable future is both practical and desirable – and can be profitable, too.