Farms of the future

FIFTY YEARS ago this month the book ‘Silent Spring’ kick-started the environmental movement and changed the way we grow our food. As climate change and population growth exert growing pressure, what will the next generation of farms look like? 


This month marks the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. Al Gore credits the book with his involvement in environmental issues, while others credit it with kick-starting the environmental movement of the 1960s. The Daily Telegraph claimed it “brought ecology into the popular consciousness”.


There is little doubt that Carson’s exposé of the destruction of wildlife and the environment through the use of pesticides was one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Despite condemnation in the press, Carson succeeded in creating a new public awareness of the environment, which led to changes in government policy.


But we’re now in the 21st century and farming has new challenges ahead. Farmers today have four billion more people to feed than in 1962; by 2062 that number could well have exceeded nine billion. Consumers are also demanding land-intensive and greenhouse-gas-intensive foods. As developing countries become wealthier, this demand can only intensify as more and more people crave the diets of the developed world.


And all this extra food has to be produced on less land, using fewer resources and in a changing climate. This year the UK has already had droughts and floods while in the US forecasts for drought-hit corn production were slashed by 17% sending some commodity prices to record levels and raising fears that a new global food crisis is on the way. Experts predict that this is just the beginning, and in the future climate change will decrease global agricultural yields and increase production volatility.


Indeed, in his foreword to the 2011 “Future of Food and Farming” report the government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington, wrote that the case for urgent action “is now compelling”. He adds: “We are at a unique moment in history … The food system must become sustainable, whilst adapting to climate change and substantially contributing to climate change mitigation.”


The changes will have to be radical, the report concludes, and “there is an urgency in taking what may be very difficult policy decisions”.


Deciding how to balance the competing pressure and demands on the global food system is a major task facing today’s policy-makers as well as farmers and food businesses.


So where do we go from here? We know we can’t go on as we are, but is the mainstream agricultural sector reluctant to make a major shift?


Sustainable intensification is an idea that is being supported in some quarters, and there is also a debate about the role of genetically modified crops in enhancing yields, reducing pesticide use and growing crops in a changing climate. Agriculture finds itself at a crossroads, with big challenges ahead and tough decisions to make.


In 1962 Carson wrote about a similar crossroads: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s popular poem, they are not equally fair.


“The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth, super-highway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one ‘less travelled by’ – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.”


So which path will we take now? On the 50th anniversary of “Silent Spring” we asked prominent food industry representatives how agriculture needs to change in the next 50 years in order to feed the world without destroying the planet.


We can feed the world but it won’t be easy – what the experts told us:


“There’s enough food to feed the world today, and there should still be enough food to feed the world in 2062 – but only if we free ourselves of today’s cornucopian fantasies. Agriculture will have to dramatically reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, dramatically reduce the amount of water it needs for irrigation, and seek to eliminate the chronic waste of food that goes on both in the poor world and the rich world. Small farms will matter as much as big farms, local will matter as much as global,  and we’ll all have to get used to the idea of eating a lot less meat.”

Jonathan Porritt, founder and director, Forum for the Future 


“We need a new economics built on equity and ecology to underpin how we farm. Agriculture will be based on an ecological not a fossil-fuelled, industrial, corporate-controlled model. It rewards farmers and farm workers fairly for their work, values and supports small farmers’ knowledge and abilities, and redirects research activities accordingly. Its priority is food production linked to health needs not feed, fibre or fuel. It respects the animals used for food but diets would be largely plant-based.”

Geoff Tansey, trustee, Food Ethics Council 


“Fifty years ago we also saw the ‘green revolution’ inspired by the great Nobel Peace winner Norman Borlaug; a revolution that spared untold millions from hunger and starvation. We face an even bigger challenge in the next 25 years: to increase production dramatically, confronted with climate change, water shortages and years of neglect in agricultural research. The future must be to produce more while striving to reduce negative impacts on the environment. ‘Sustainable intensification’ is the phrase used by the Royal Society. We all struggle to grasp exactly what it will mean, but of one thing I am sure: farmers will have to produce more with less.”

Peter Kendall, president NFU 


“Strategic leadership (and appropriate incentive frameworks), effective land management and strategic planning are all essential to encourage sustainable and sustained production. Existing technologies can deliver yield increases and improved resilience, but this requires substantial global investment. Unlocking that investment with appropriate frameworks and incentives is key to preserving food choice and availability in the long term.”

Dr Patricia Thornley, senior researcher, sustainable consumption institute, University of Manchester 


“I think two key things are required. First, a recognition of the potential magnitude of the challenges facing the food system. This is going to need action across the board: increasing production, moderating demand, reducing waste and improving food system governance. Second, on the production side, the realisation that we are going to have to produce more food from existing land in a way that has much less impact on the environment – this is ‘sustainable intensification’ and requires a continuing refocusing of efforts on producing food in more resource-efficient ways.”

Professor Charles Godfray, department of zoology, University of Oxford 


“In 2062 a sustainable agricultural system will be one which has achieved a paradigm shift, moving from the outdated ‘more production’ model to one based on ‘better production’ and which meets the nutritional needs of populations. This takes into account the need for improved production efficiencies as well as consumption changes in both the developed and developing world. We will have shifted from an ideological approach to farming, to one based on a set of key principles, which recognises that there is no ‘silver bullet’ approach. We recognise the fundamental bottom line, the ‘true cost of food’ including the social and economic value of ecosystems and the services they provide.”

Mark Driscoll, One Planet Food lead, WWF-UK 


“Three-quarters of the world’s coffee is produced by smallholders and every one of them is at risk from the effects of climate change. There is a real possibility that, if nothing is done, we will face shortages and price rises – a double whammy that will affect everybody in the coffee supply chain, from grower to manufacturer, from retailer to consumer. There are many different ways that coffee farmers can adapt to climate change; for example, one of the projects we have running in Peru is reforesting an area above 6,600 coffee farms. These trees both generate income through carbon credits, whilst also creating a water catchment area to prevent flash floods damaging the coffee trees. What we need now is for other companies to follow suit and create adaptation projects all over the world.”

Robyn Kimber, impact and sustainability manager, Cafedirect


“We know we can’t go on as we are, but the mainstream agricultural sector is reticent to make a major paradigm shift. If we did, it would require applying an ecological approach to agriculture, one that is more holistic and with the aim of optimising yields rather than maximising them. We would see more perennial agroforestry systems, and this in turn would mean a change in diet to one that is actually healthier. Agricultural research paradigms would similarly need to change, as well as food processing and distribution systems that would be dealing with different compositions of produce and from different farm arrangements. All this is possible.”

Dr Julia Wright, acting director, centre for agroecology and food security, Coventry University 


“Farming must adapt to the climate change and water scarcity it has partly caused. But the world also depends on it for livelihoods, thriving ecosystems and by the way producers and animals are treated. Achieving a fairer, greener and healthier agriculture will take ecological management, for example using rotations to cycle nutrients and control pests. Organic farming encourages integrated management at a farm scale, where we know it works – could innovative co-operation and joint ventures achieve similar benefits at a landscape scale? To meet the challenges of the next 50 years we need farming to be principled, collaborative and creative.”

Michael Bond, Food for Life catering manager, Soil Association 


“I see two scenarios: one in which Europe ignores the ‘perfect storm’ of rising populations and climate change, and allows political pressures to install a museum-type agriculture, until the crisis hits, when a reverse in previous policies is required, perhaps too late for farmers and growers to respond. The second is one in which Europe recognises the ‘perfect storm’ and puts the right policies on the judicious use of GM and pesticides in place to promote productive and sustainable agriculture, allowing the European food supply chain to not only ride out the storm but to have progressed as a result of it.”

Julian Little, communications manager, Bayer CropScience 


“Agriculture and food production is going to be under the spotlight as never before as the world strives to produce more food with fewer resources whilst reducing its impact on the planet. The main changes needed to bring this about are associated with a change in the adoption of new technologies capable of reducing the use of resources per unit of output such as a vertical growing, precision farming, genetics and so on. The focus for all food supply chains will be to maximise output per unit of all inputs – water, fuel, fertiliser, land and labour. This will require greater collaboration and long-term thinking along supply chains to provide confidence to those investing in the innovation and enable such a focus to be effective.”

Elizabeth Bowles, European and Farming Partnership