The challenges facing world agriculture – a discussion paper by David Richardson

Farmers Weekly magazine printed an abridged version of a discussion paper by columnist David Richardson in the issue of 21 December 2007.

Here is the full version of the paper, The challenges facing World agriculture and the implications for policy makers, which concludes that it would not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that within the foreseeable future it will be necessary to deal with the production of food as during a war.

To feed a population that will grow from 6.3bn to 9.5bn over the next  forty years it will be necessary to:

  • double the total production of food
  • triple crop yields per hectare
  • and do it on less land with much less water 


    Fifty years ago food was rationed across Europe and farmers were urged to produce more. Forty years later they had been so successful that there were lakes of milk, mountains of grain and more. Limits were imposed on production and land was compulsorily left idle.

    Today, following a dramatic rise in world population; increases in demand from fast developing nations; the diversion of significant volumes of farm commodities into bio-fuel; the preservation of land for specific environmental purposes; and changes in the world’s climate, we once again face the prospect of food shortages.

    This discussion paper is intended to help increase understanding of the implications of these changes, suggest measures the author believes should urgently be adopted and promote debate that recognises the vital importance of production agriculture.


    It is widely accepted that the population of the world stands at some 6.3billion and that this will increase to 9.5 to 10.0billion by 2050. The increases will be greater in developing countries than developed countries. The two leaders in population growth, according to the World Bank, are China (currently 1.3billion) and India (currently 1.07billion). Economic growth in both has been dramatic in recent years and as incomes have increased demand for more and better food has followed. In India, for instance, it has been shown that where incomes have risen from $1/day to $2/day expenditure on food has more than doubled. In China, where similar income increases have occurred, food expenditure has tripled. The same pattern has been observed throughout the developing world.

    These trends are set to continue. Further, rising populations will be increasingly urban. More people will become consumers instead of producers of food. They will settle around existing cities and towns taking up land that previously produced crops for consumption. Most cities were originally established in areas of good land so, by definition, more of it will be lost from food production creating greater demands on other areas where the land may be of lower quality and production potential.

    It has been calculated (by the World Bank) because of higher populations and increases in individual income and demand, that world food demand will double by 2050. But land depletion around cities and the fact that there is only about 12% of land left in the world that has yet to be cultivated (assuming the Brazilian rain forest, the worlds biggest carbon sink, remains substantially intact) means that yields per hectare will need to triple to satisfy the anticipated demand for food.


    It should be noted that the above takes no account of the current trend, in many countries, to use farm produced commodities as feed-stocks for bio-fuels in response to the run-down in supply and high price of fossil fuels. Moreover, the diversion of some 70million tonnes of US maize to ethanol production rather than export for food this year has exacerbated the world feed grain shortage and had a significant impact on raising world grain prices. In Britain the spot price of grain is approximately twice as high as this time last year creating severe problems for livestock farmers reliant on bought in grain based feeds for their rations.

    Other farm produced feed stocks are also being used for bio-fuels. Oil seed rape from the western world and palm oil from countries like Indonesia for the production of bio-diesel; sugar and wheat for ethanol; and the burning of fibre crops such as cereal straw, miscanthus, willow coppice and forestry waste to generate electricity. Predictably there is a great deal of enthusiasm for these developments from farmers. They see them as providing additional markets for what they produce and creating sufficient demand to maintain current market prices. For their costs for energy, fertilisers, pesticides and indeed most other inputs required for crop production have risen rapidly recently.

    Sadly, few of these energy sources are truly sustainable, for two reasons; firstly because the energy derived from the processes is often little more than the energy that has to be used to extract it; and secondly because most bio-fuels require government subsidies to be viable. In countries where subsidies are generous, such as the USA and Germany, the development of bio-fuels has been swift and dramatic. In other countries where subsidies are much smaller, such as the UK, progress has been much slower. Without substantial aid even crude oil prices close to $100/barrel are insufficient to encourage widespread investment in bio-fuel alternatives. Given the expected future demand for food the wisdom or otherwise of building up a subsidy based bio-fuel industry is much debated.


    It has been estimated (by WWF International) that some 67% of the Worlds fresh water is used for agriculture. As populations increase and prosperity spreads demand for water will increase. But because of these developments, availability per person will be at least one third lower than it is now. There will be shortages and in the battle of priorities agriculture will almost certainly lose. As an American farmer who had lost his water rights in Colorado told me many years ago, “Them folks in Denver changed the laws of nature. They made water run uphill – towards money”. The same will be true around the world and farmers who currently rely on water to help them grow their crops will have to find ways to do without.

    It is too early to be sure what effects global warming (if it is a reality – and we must in any case take the warnings seriously) will have on farm production in the medium and long term. All we know is that there have been aberrations in the weather in many areas of the world in recent years. There have been droughts in large areas of Australia that have decimated grain harvests and caused sheep and cattle to be shot because there was no grass for them to eat. In the mid west of America slightly less serious droughts have reduced the production of wheat and soya beans for the last two years. There have been ultra cold winters in the Ukraine and Russia that have killed off autumn sown wheat. And as we know well, there have been intermittent droughts and floods across Europe as average temperatures have risen.

    Whether these phenomena have been because of natural variation in the weather or something more sinister is open to argument. But there is no doubt they have caused massive problems for farmers and made the production of commodities a great deal more difficult. If global warming continues and by definition, becomes more severe, farming systems will have to change. In the meantime production will suffer from extremes of weather.


    To summarise – the farmers of the world will need, over the next forty years, to double the total production of food; to triple yields per hectare; and to do it on less land using much less water.

    The Rev. Thomas Malthus said just over two hundred years ago (1798) that the World would run out of food. We didn’t, and he’s been something of a laughing stock since. But could his predictions be about to come true at last?

    Certainly to avoid that happening the world needs to take the possibility (some say probability) seriously and take action now. Why the urgency while Tesco’s shelves are full? Because it takes ten years to develop a new variety of seed and bring it into commercial production. And the huge increases in production and yield that are called for cannot be achieved in one giant leap. It will take a long period of sustained research and application and a number of steps to respond to the scale of the challenge. As one of the world’s top plant scientists said to me recently – “there are possibilities of meeting the challenges ahead but research budgets have been slashed and are currently inadequate to tackle the scale of the problem.”

    It should, by now, be clear that the production of sufficient food for the future poses a dilemma that is at least equal in importance and urgency as that of dealing with climate change. Furthermore, that the two are inescapably linked and that production agriculture can, by raising output and reducing the movement of bulky commodities around the world, be part of the solution. But while a great deal of political capital is being invested in climate change there is little parallel debate on the provision of food.


    A massive worldwide research effort needs to be undertaken to establish how to grow crops in changing climates that yield better and are more nutritious. In addition scientists could intensify their search for crops that are tolerant to drought. While doing so they need to identify strains that are resistant to diseases and viruses, that can thrive without pesticides and which have enhanced shelf life to reduce waste. Those involved in research into livestock farming need to look for the animal equivalents, especially with regard to diseases, for the most intractable of which they should create vaccines.

    At present the majority of such research is entrusted to multi-national concerns whose research is often limited to the most potentially profitable innovations and/or concentrated on exploiting other products of their company. I am not suggesting their work is of no value. The reverse is clearly true in most cases, but to balance their commercial interests and to ensure substantial research is devoted to the public good there needs to be a significant build-up of state funded, independent research with centres all around the world co-operating, even more than at present, to maximise international progress. Given the inevitable time delays in getting results from such work it is urgent this starts now.


    Much of the research envisaged will centre around variations on genetic modification. I am, of course, aware that despite the fact that British scientists are among the world leaders in the technology, this remains controversial in the UK. There appears, however, to be greater acceptance of it and some relaxation of the regulations surrounding it in Europe. Spain was allowed to grow 75,000hectares of Bt maize last year, for instance, with lesser areas in Portugal, France, the Czech Republic and even Germany, to deal with serious problems with corn borers. As yet, no commercial GM crops of any kind have been grown in the UK.

    Some 100million hectares of GM crops were grown around the world last year with no ill effects on the people who consumed them. This area has increased from a standing start about ten years ago making it the fastest world wide adoption of a new agricultural technology ever known. If Britain continues to resist the adoption of good science we will be denying our farmers the opportunity to compete on world markets and even more importantly, contributing to a shortage of food that might be avoided. At present we have a policy that is part science and part public opinion. That public opinion is led by hostile single issue pressure groups. It is hardly surprising policies are inconsistent and illogical.


    UK and EU policies have been equally inappropriate in other areas of land use in recent years. They have concentrated almost entirely on enhancing the environment while assuming that food security was not an issue. Phrases like “the world is awash with food for us to import”, have been commonplace and retailers have been encouraged to scour the world for cheapest possible supplies. Warnings that this would lead to a run-down in domestic production have been ignored.

    Suddenly there is not as much food out there as was thought. In any event it is costing much more than it did. The cost of food, that has risen slower than most other prices for the last fifty years and has therefore been deflationary, has suddenly shot up and is in danger of becoming inflationary. The Prime Minister has suddenly realised there may be a problem and has initiated an enquiry into whether food security matters.

    But he has left it rather late. Since 1995 Britain’s self sufficiency in foods that can be produced at home has reduced from 86% to an estimated 70%. The food trade gap – that is the trade deficit between the food we import and that which we export –  increased from £6bill to more than £15bill in 2005 so it is probably nearer £20bill now. A downward spiral of that magnitude gathers momentum and is difficult to reverse. The gap will almost certainly grow bigger before it can begin to recover – if, as I fervently hope, that is what the PM’s enquiry suggests should be attempted. However, it is extremely doubtful that officials and ministers at DEFRA, who have demonstrated little understanding of the industry over which they preside, have any idea how to set about rebuilding production.


    I will not attempt here to specify all the measures that need to be taken to re-build production and re-establish farmer confidence in government except to say that chief among them will be the adoption of policies that are practical and achievable. 

    But one key element in tackling the task would be to re-establish regional advisory committees composed of leading practical farmers and advisors who understand what would be required and what it would take to motivate farmers and researchers. Combined with an immediate injection of cash for research and some inspired advice at farm level, appropriate policies might begin to get a response from the industry within a few years. Issuing edicts on top of regulations wrapped up in red tape will not achieve such a response.


    It would not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that within the foreseeable future it will be necessary to deal with the production of food as during a war.

    Many deep thinkers have come to the view that DEFRA in its current structure is an inappropriate department to deal with the challenges this paper has outlined.

    The management of this huge task will require a government department dedicated to food production.

    Such a department should be created, populated and advised by people who actually understand agriculture and the food industry and why sustainable growth in food production is a prime responsibility of government and farmers together.

    Caring wildlife conservation and environmental management can be balanced alongside and integrated with the priority of food production.

    The writer was, in 1991, the founder chairman of LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming). The balance between production and care for the countryside was one of the main objectives we espoused then and have promoted and practiced since. LEAF principles could be applied across the whole of agriculture alongside the necessary increase in food production. It is a proven virtuous circle.

    In the end the judgement of future generations will depend on whether we accept the inevitability of change and plan for it with foresight so that we survive and leave our successors a viable world. Or whether, by inertia and misguided policies, we allow ourselves and our children to become its victims.

    November 2007

    David Richardson is the senior partner in a family farming business in Norfolk and a columnist for Farmers Weekly. In 2000 he was awarded an OBE “for services to integrated farming”. He has his own blog on FWi called David’s Digest.

    See more