In the last century, agricultural production intensified, but this increased its impacts on the environment, waste in supply chains and in some regions of the world, disconnected it from people’s lives. Projections of global population growth and changing consumption patterns out to 2050 suggest further increases in food production will be needed. This POSTnote outlines key drivers of global agricultural trends and the challenge of safeguarding both food production and environment value in a changing world.Jump to full report >>
Global agricultural production might have to double in the next 30 years to meet changing food consumption patterns. Along with population growth, consumption patterns for some population groups are expected to converge on those typical of affluent countries. Four crops, maize, rice, wheat and soybeans, currently provide nearly two-thirds of global calorie intake. However, yields in these four crops are increasing at less than the 2.4% per year required to double global production by 2050.
The further intensification of agricultural production to meet growing food demand may increase its environmental impacts. For example, agriculture can have high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions because of the use of fossil-fuelled heavy machinery, such as tractors, and inputs, such as fertilisers. It is responsible for approximately 24% of global GHG emissions, with transportation accounting for 14%, and electricity and heat production for 25%. Agriculture is the biggest polluter of freshwaters in many countries, rates of water use for irrigation exceed replenishment in others and agricultural practices are partly responsible for declines in biodiversity and soil degradation.
An estimated 29% of all farms globally are involved in initiatives to increase food production without increasing their land use, which amounts 9% of agricultural land. Innovation and technological advances, such as data-enabled precision agriculture and robotic farming, may be one option for increasing yields while lowering inputs. However, studies have highlighted that such approaches will be insufficient to reduce the environmental impacts without changing dietary habits and reducing food waste.
Key points in this POSTnote include:
POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees (some of whom were initially consulted in 2016) and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:
Professor Michael Winter, Professor of Land Economy and Society, University of Exeter*
Professor Ottoline Leyser, University of Cambridge*
Professor Charles Godfray, University of Oxford*
Professor Keith Goulding, Sustainable Soils Research Fellow, Rothamsted Research*
Professor Achim Dobermann, Director and Chief Executive of Rothamsted Research
Professor Lorna Dawson, Principal Soil Scientist, James Hutton Institute*
Dr Jemma Gornall, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh*
Graeme Cook, Director of SEFARI Gateway/Head of Research and Knowledge Exchange, Scottish Parliamentary Information Centre*
Professor Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex*
Dr Louise Manning, Senior Lecturer in Food Production Management, School of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Royal Agricultural University^
Professor Derek Stewart, Leader of Enhancing Crop Productivity and Utilization Theme, The James Hutton Institute^
Professor Pete Smith, Chair in Plant & Soil Science at the University of Aberdeen^
Professor Ian Crute, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board Member*
Tom Hind, Chief Strategy Officer at Agricultural & Horticultural Development Board
Dr Bill Parker, Research Director, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board
Ken Boyns, Market Intelligence Director, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board^
Dr Pete Falloon, Impacts Model Development Manager, Met Office^
Kristy Lewis, Met Office
Dr Helen Ferrier, NFU Chief Science and Regulatory Affairs Adviser
Gail Soutar, NFU Chief Economics and International Affairs Adviser^
Dr Andrew Francis, NFU Chief Economic Adviser
Sean Rickard, independent economic consultant, Sean Rickard Ltd.
Daniel Pearsall, Front Foot Communications Ltd
Professor Ian Boyd, Defra Chief Scientific Adviser
Maria Gonzalez-Rey, Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Stella D'Italia, Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Agri-food Technology Leadership Council
Jane Jackson, Government Office for Science
Arjune Keshwala, Government Office for Science
Peer review comments from Defra were also provided by: Luke Ridley, Mark Jacob, Louise Courts, James Heatley, Nancy Singh, Chloe Smale, Heather Dines and George Clarkson*
*Denotes people who acted as external reviewers of the briefing
^Denotes people who were consulted in 2016
Authors: Jonathan Wentworth; Giulia Cuccato; Rebecca Nohl
The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology.