World food demand offers opportunities for all farmers

Agriculture is entering a third revolution, which will offer stronger demand for food, new technology and higher prices, according to economist Sean Rickard.

Speaking at a Mole Valley Farmers’ conference last week, Mr Rickard said farmers faced a bright future, but would have to embrace change to meet new challenges.

With the global population forecast to reach 9bn by 2050, and likely to become increasingly developed, demand for food could double. But static yield growth, limited land and water availability, and environmental pressures meant farmers would struggle to meet this demand. “Commodity prices are now 40% higher than in 2000 – and they are probably going to go higher in the future,” said Mr Rickard.

However, soaring energy costs meant inputs could exceed the rise in commodity prices. “Efficiency is going to be key.” Agriculture around the world would have to become more efficient, meaning farms would grow further in size and less efficient farmers would continue to leave the industry.

Another vital part of meeting the demand for more food with increasingly limited resources would be by using genetically modified products, he said. “If we are to solve the problem of hunger in the future, farming needs the help of science and technology and industrialised efficiency. I think it is shameful that we are not embracing genetic modification – it is time to push forward with the technology available to us to feed the world in the future.”

Farmers would also have to manage their businesses better in a time of volatile markets and environmental pressure, said Mr Rickard. “Efficient farmers can be environmentally friendly while producing more food. We need to get back to putting science and good management at the heart of the farming industry.”

In an era when demand for food threatened to outstrip supply, farmers would become more powerful sellers, he added. But they would still need to co-operate more and branch up the supply chain to secure a greater slice of the retail price. Since 1992 UK expenditure on food had more than doubled, to £140bn – but farmers’ returns from that had remained unchanged. “By forming groups farmers can increase their supply chain influence and capture more value from the food they produce.”

By copying the continental co-ops, and appointing a professional team of managers to run the business, farmers could ultimately take control of all produce sales, and invest in processing capacity to add further value to their products, said Mr Rickard. “If you can do that, I think the next 50 years are going to be the best 50 years you’ve ever had.”