World agriculture is facing an explosion in demand for food that will require farmers to embrace biotechnology to the full.

Increasing world population was one of the main factors, Robert Thompson, chair of agriculture at the University of Illinois, told the NFU Centenary Conference.

By 2050, the number of mouths to feed would rise from 6.7bn to around 9bn, with most of the growth taking place in low income countries, especially India.

But it was rising incomes that would have the greatest impact. The World Bank predicted that the number of people earning over $8000 a year would increase from 352m to 2.1bn by 2030.

Demand for food would explode as a consequence, said Prof Thompson, making areas of Asia even more dependent on food imports.

To avoid a Malthusian scenario of mass starvation, food production would need to double by 2050.

But land and water were major restrictions and the only option was to double the productivity of existing land stocks.

This would involve a much greater research effort – both public and private – and the widespread uptake of biotechnology to grow crops that were tolerant to drought, flood, disease and poor soils.

Extending the shelf life of food products was also important to cut the 25% waste that currently occurs between the farmgate and the shop shelf.

Prof Thompson insisted that agriculture had the tools to feed the world. “There is no excuse for Malthus to be any more right in the 21st century than in the 19th century,” he said.

He also dismissed organic food production as an “irrelevance” in terms of fighting global hunger, “especially as almost half of humanity lives on less than £1 a day”.