Agriculture is entering a period of monumental change and investment in sound science will be essential if food security is to be achieved.

Addressing an NFU Centenary Conference debate, chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission Jonathan Porritt warned that “a perfect storm” was brewing.

Rising world population, climate change and the end of cheap oil all challenged the ability of the world to feed itself. “I believe we are entering an unprecedented, extraordinary decade,” he said.

Farming would have to adapt quickly. “We do not have generations to put in place the foundations of a low carbon economy. We have ten or fifteen years at the most.”

Evidence

While there was already plenty of information on how farming could lower its carbon footprint – for example the Climate Change Task Force’s “Part of the Solution” publication – there was still a need for a massive increase in research and development.

Mr Porritt said that GM crops that offered increased yield or greater drought resistance might have a part to play, though so far the evidence was “unconvincing”.

But he was “despairing” of the quality of the debate from both sides of the argument and concerned that most of the research was done by those companies that stood to gain financially.

Commodity prices

The strains that were emerging in the ability of the world to feed itself, combined with competition for food as a renewable fuel source, meant that the recent increases in commodity prices were here to stay.

Government chief scientist John Beddington agreed, pointing out that, since 2005, world agricultural production had started to lag behind population growth.

World wheat stocks were at a record low of just 60 days supply. It was even more startling that all this carryover stock was currently on ships at sea.

Some parts of the world, including the UK and Europe, could actually benefit from climate change, said Prof Beddington, but only if there was a significant increase in the research effort.