Global food production has increased dramatically in the last 50 years, yet large numbers of people remain malnourished worldwide, compounded by the ever-increasing threats from climate change and resource scarcity. As a result, extensive and coordinated action is required to tackle these huge challenges, on many fronts.
Recognising this, the Journal Environmental Scientist, of the IES (Institution of Environmental Sciences) produced a special edition concerning 'Feeding the Nine Billion'. Cranfield staff wrote two articles in the edition.
Firstly, Dr Jaqueline Hannam produced an article entitled 'S.O.S. - Save our soil today to meet the food challenges of tomorrow'. The piece analyses how soil research and disruptive innovation in farming techniques are contributing to meeting the food challenges of a growing global population. With the importance of soil as the source for most of our food (around 95 per cent of our food comes from soil), a key challenge arises as more food is needed, with the booming global population - and there isn't actually much viable land left.
Jacqueline noted the importance of innovative thinking and how new approaches are needed in modern farming, because if we continue with the status quo, it has been estimated that soils will only support 60 more harvests. To avoid this catastrophe, we need to understand our soils better, and support farmers to try new approaches, many of which will be radically different to their current practices. Agriculture needs disruptive innovation to increase yields sustainably, and this can start with farming for soil. This requires a combination of new technologies and changing farming practices. These should be underpinned by effective knowledge exchange and collaboration between research, industry and agricultural practitioners, and crucially, be supported by agricultural policy that is flexible enough to encourage implementation of the adaptive approaches that are necessary to protect our soil resources. Most farmers recognise the fundamental value of their soil, but the numbers of practising 'soil farmers' needs to swell to ensure soils are able to effectively support sustainable increases in food production. This requires investing in soil for the benefit of the farmers and the population of the future. The challenge of feeding nine billion people by 2050 is immense, but so is our capacity to challenge and innovate. And remember, we need to save our soil now to save our future planet!
Continuing in this theme, Cranfield's Dr Stephen Hallett produced a related article entitled 'Smart cities need smart farms', noting how the relationship between research underway at Cranfield University, industry and the farming community is helping to work towards sustainable food production to meet increasing urban demand. This is important as internationally the latest estimates suggest the world's population is likely to hit nine billion by 2050. Added to this, the UN estimates that some 54 per cent of the world's population now live in urban areas, with a predicted increase to 66 per cent by 2050, and for this population in particular, there are fewer opportunities to become self-sufficient for food.
Stephen noted how we must also contend with living with environmental change, and that the impacts of our changing climate will affect how we can use land and what crops can be grown; the UK is no different from anywhere else, and will be affected by these changes (noting that actually in some cases these changes may have positive local effects), but in many cases it is likely to be negative as droughtiness increases. What is needed for tomorrow, to meet the food security challenges of today, is a new approach to farming; and not just technical improvements on existing approaches. The article outlines how research in precision farming, the application of agri-informatics techniques and the development of scientific approaches can aid maximising on-farm production efficiencies.
Both articles are available on-line in the Environmental Scientist Journal archive.