In developing countries where many of the population exist as subsistence farmers the food system is relatively straight forward. In contrast to developed economies where the food system or agricultural supply chain includes all aspects of crop and animal production, aquaculture, processing, storage, and distribution of food products through the wholesale and retail systems. More opportunities exist to guard against adversity and to increase productivity when the food system is complex and not reliant on a few food staples.
Food production must increase substantially but over the next decade both systems must cope with more severe climate events (2014 was the hottest year on record) and increased globalisation as more free trade agreements are signed. The increased amount of food required will need to be produced with finite water supplies on existing areas of arable land. There is general agreement that another “Green Revolution” is required but today’s revolution must be different to overcome existing environmental, financial and societal constraints. It is no longer possible or responsible to use unlimited water and chemical inputs to increase production. Other approaches to food production and processing must be found that use existing and new technologies in conjunction with appropriate social policies that are sustainable. Policies must ensure conservation of global biodiversity and animal welfare. The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change identified seven critical areas for the transition to a sustainable global food system;
- Integrate food security and sustainable agriculture into global and national policies
- Significantly raise the level of global investment in sustainable agriculture and food systems in the next decade
- Sustainably intensify agricultural production while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental impacts of agriculture
- Develop specific programs and policies to assist populations and sectors that are most vulnerable to climate changes and food insecurity
- Reshape food access and consumption patterns to ensure basic nutritional needs are met and to foster healthy and sustainable eating patterns worldwide
- Reduce loss and waste in food systems, targeting infrastructure, farming practices, processing, distribution and household habits
- Create comprehensive, shared, integrated information systems that encompass human and ecological dimensions
We must achieve all of these goals. Future food production must have both vastly increased productivity and good environmental practices. Meeting these goals will require the effective use of science. Biotechnology with its evolving “omics” tools (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics), will allow the development of new approaches to counter some of the complex problems we now face. With these approaches it will be possible to fast track current crop plants with agronomic traits such as yield and tolerance to environmental stress using the same or diminished inputs and be able to withstand pathogen attack and potential contamination with mycotoxins. The coming generation of crop plants may have value-added outputs such as improved nutrient and food functionality and be sources for biomass for biofuel production and human therapeutics.
Another important area that will undergo a major renaissance is microbial ecology with the application of molecular biology techniques . While microbial ecology is not a new concept, it is pivotal to understanding the presence and functioning of microbes in complex and dynamic food environments, both outside and inside the gastrointestinal tract. As we understand more about the complex and dynamic microbial ecology of foods, we will be in a better position to manipulate those biotic and abiotic factors that enhance food quality and human health. Similar improvements will be made to animal health and it is the unique microbial ecology of ruminant livestock (cattle and sheep) that allows them to convert human-inedible plant feeds and by-products into nutritious human foods.
The other platform that should permit a major leap forward is nanotechnology. It holds promise for responding to the need for more precise management of resources such as water and fertilizers, improving crop and livestock production, controlling pests, diseases, and weeds, monitoring plant disease and environmental stresses, improving postharvest technology, including waste management and food safety. It will allow the application of precision agriculture in both developed and developing economies.
However, without consumer acceptance, new technologies will not succeed. This will require education and communication of the benefits that will accrue from their application. This will need to be achieved with a back-drop of increased consumer interest in foods produced locally and organic agriculture. These “feel-good” approaches to agriculture will not overcome the food demands of the future but the more useful aspects of these practices must be part of food production in the future.