Agri-tech: harvesting profits from the future of the food industry

The agricultural sector has long survived by throwing more pesticides, machines and land at every problem. That won’t work any more. Merryn Somerset Webb explores the agri-tech revolution.
“I have two boys, ten and 13, and they won’t have enough food to eat in a few years’ time.” So said a climate-change protestor to Richard Madeley on Good Morning Britain. Madeley looked mildly bemused. Probably for good reason. Right now, the planet has no shortage of food. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, around 10% of the world’s population is malnourished in some way (though this figure has halved in the last 20 years). But that malnutrition, sadly, reflects more of a distribution problem than a production problem.
An estimate from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 2018 suggested that around one third of the food produced globally ends up wasted: 1.6 billion tonnes with a value of around $1.6trn. That’s partly a function of consumer incompetence (we buy too much and don’t understand the subjective nature of sell-by dates). But it’s also a result of the failure of food companies to match up supply and demand properly, while lousy infrastructure and distribution systems are the main problem in many parts of the world. Still, the idea that with this surplus knocking around children in the UK will be hungry in a few years’ time seems a bit nuts.
But will that change a few decades out? The global population is forecast to hit 9.7 billion by 2050 (it’s around 7.5 billion now), so there might be an extra two billion mouths to feed in a mere 30 years’ time. Capture all the waste mentioned above, chuck in a few small productivity increases, and that doesn’t look like a problem. Don’t capture it (BCG assumes that waste will rise as the global population gets richer and less careful about calories), fail to boost productivity, and it might be.
Climate change is crucial
However, there’s another element in here: climate change. We need to think about changing how we grow and use food in the medium term because the global population is growing, but also because the agricultural sector as a whole is a significant contributor to global warming. Agricultural activities account for around 14% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, notes a recent report from Barclays Investment Bank (as well as nearly 100% of human nutritional intake). In the case of arable farming the majority of emissions are due to the release of nitrous oxide associated with the intense use of fertiliser. In livestock farming they stem from the methane produced by ruminant animals, especially cows – look up enteric fermentation if you want to know how this works…

“One third of global food production, 1.6 billion tonnes worth $1.6trn, is wasted”

Deforestation to create land for more animals and grow crops for grain-fed ruminants adds nastily to the problem; some estimates take the impact of agriculture up to 25%-30% of GHG emissions. According to Global Forest Watch, the world lost 15.8 million hectares of forest in 2017 alone. There are arguments to be had about the size of this problem relative to emissions from other parts of the economy. And there are definitely arguments to be had about how the various different types of farming should be treated.

Subscribers can read it in the digital edition or app

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *