What is the global future of Agriculture?
From time to time we respond to questions about the future sent in via email by readers. We don’t have a lot of time for this, but when a question seems especially interesting we offer our thoughts.
Question by Carole Mules, Brisbane, Australia
Response by Glen Hiemstra, 2000
This is a complex question to summarize in a few words, but let’s take a general look. The future of global agriculture is mixed, with both positive and negative signs.
First, there are positive signs. Many of those who address the future need for food and fiber assume the worst case in terms of global population growth. However, as we recently pointed out in our Future Trends article “Population Explosion Ends In a Whimper”, world population may level out sooner than commonly understood. So the challenge, while very large, may not be as dire as often thought.
In addition, it is generally understood that world food production tends to outstrip world food demand, despite population growth. There is some uncertainty whether this has been true in very recent years, but the long-term trend has been toward increasing food supplies. Distribution of food is another issue, and countries without democracy or free markets, or those engaged in war or facing extreme poverty obviously tend to have the greatest problems feeding their populations. But in at least a hypothetical sense there tends to be sufficient food to feed the world if it were distributed correctly.
Recent advances in agriculture technology are aiding in food production. These tend to be of two types, biological and digital. Biotech advances are leading to more productive and nutritious crops. For example, it was announced on September 8, 2000 that biochemist Dr. Evangelina Villegas of Mexico and plant geneticist Dr. Surinder K. Vasal of India are this year’s winners of the World Food Prize, for vital contributions to global food. Dr. Villegas is the first woman ever to receive The World Food Prize.
The recent results of the George Washington University, Delphi study suggest that something they call “precision agriculture” will be one of the ten key breakthroughs in the next ten years. This involves the integration of satellite observations, on-the-ground instruments, and sophisticated farm machinery to apply the appropriate amounts of seed, water, fertilizer, and so on, literally meter by meter, so that maximum efficiency in food production is realized. This will become more feasible as technological advances are made in the next ten years, and lead, it is assumed, to better food production (More information at The George Washington University Forecast of Technology and Strategy).
At the same time as these positive signs can be found, there are negative indicators as well. Perhaps most ominous is continuing depletion of ocean resources, as various fish varieties are harvested to near extinction. Second is depletion of arable lands, either through development, or through agricultural practices that lead to erosion, salination, or simple loss of productivity through over-use. The World Resources Institute estimates that nearly 40% of the world’s agricultural lands are depleted in some way.
A related issue is depletion of ground water used for irrigation, a particular problem in certain parts of the world.
And new technology is its own kind of threat. For many years it has been understood that the use of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides depletes the land over time. This continues, though positive efforts are being made with precision farming, sustainable agriculture practices, and more resistant crops to minimize the impacts.
On the near future horizon is a relatively new issue however, and this is the threat to biodiversity. Farmers have changed and improved crops and livestock since the beginning of agriculture, through breeding practices. These changes have typically been localized however. Now, with global agribusiness and chemical and biotech firms becoming ever larger, the prospects are for decreasing variety in crops and animals. A cow cloned to provide more milk, or a corn crop designed to be more nutritious, while terrific in a local area, may become problematic if spread worldwide should it later develop that the animal or crop fails, succumbing to some unknown threat. This will be a topic of debate and decision in the coming years. One futurist I know has forecast that eventually what is likely to emerge are distinct zones, those where genetically modified organisms are allowed, and those where they are outlawed. Such zones may exist both within and between nations and larger regions.
In summary, we are optimistic that world food production will be sustainable for a gradually leveling population. If the world trend toward free markets continues, this food supply may be distributed in a way that tends to decrease the percentage of the global population living in hunger.