Science needs to spark a bumper harvest

 

Innovation in agriculture needs to speed up dramatically if food production is to increase to meet the world’s growing needs, writes JOHN REYNOLDS

RADICAL SCIENCE and innovation in farming will be vital to produce the food that the world will need by 2050, the 28th annual symposium of Dunboyne-headquartered animal health and nutrition firm Alltech heard last month.

But as it and other Irish firms such as Glanbia begin to make incremental advances in the kind of smarter and greener beef and dairy farming that will be necessary to meet the appetites of the burgeoning middle classes in China and other rapidly emerging economies, industry experts and executives worry that the pace of innovation to date has been too slow.

Between 70 per cent and 100 per cent more food will be required to feed a world population of nine billion if it continues to rise at the current rate between now and 2050. The key metric, however, is that it will need to be produced by using only half the energy, land and water that is currently required, according to research commissioned by Britain’s chief scientific adviser.

Because of the likely effects of climate change on the availability of water for crops and the rate of development on the availability of arable land in emerging economies over the next 40 years, a farmer currently growing 20 tonnes of wheat on 20 acres would need to grow between 68 and 80 tonnes of wheat on that land by 2050, with no increase in energy and water use during the same period.

“Essentially we have to double food production and speed up science and innovation in this area, and we might fail,” argues Dr Sean Rickard, an agricultural economist based at the UK’s Cranfield University School of Management.

Tom Dorr of the US Grain Council, a non-profit organisation that works on behalf of grain crop producers, adds: “We haven’t put enough RD into the areas of food and agriculture in the past 20 or 30 years. Agriculture is a growing industry so we need much, much more of it.”

“More innovation done by more innovators is required, combined with creativity that we see elsewhere in the food industry, from chefs, for example,” adds Mark Lyons, vice-president for Alltech’s business in China.

With this in mind, household names in the food industry, such as Nestlé and Mars and our own Glanbia, are all pursuing more sustainable production with varying ambitions.

“We are researching rainfall and the potential impact on coffee and cocoa bean growth and milk production if the impact of climate change results in rises in temperature of up to 4 or 5 degrees Celsius,” explains Hans Joehr, Nestlé’s head of agriculture.

Recent droughts in parts of Australia affected growers of its oats. “We’re now looking in far greater detail at soil and water conservation programmes that are key components of sustainable cereal farming methods for our suppliers.

“We’re also researching natural seed breeding programmes to develop drought and disease resistant strains of oats. But the wider food industry is still too much in the commodity business of just producing it and selling it with little innovation.

“In some of our suppliers’ processes the level of waste is 50 per cent. That compares to 5 per cent or less in the manufacturing process for an iPhone, for example.”

Reducing waste in this and more direct ways need not be complicated: the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that a third of harvested crops are wasted, sometimes before they even get to the processing stage.

“There are no Six Sigma or lean production systems for lean agriculture. But for example in the UK we work with six farms that use lean dairy production and they have demonstrated outstanding results,” Joehr says, adding that he would welcome the involvement of Irish producers in a group to share innovation best practices in dairy farming.

Pet food-to-chocolate giant Mars – with annual sales of $30bn – has also set ambitious sustainability targets. It buys about 10 per cent of the world’s cocoa, and producing more on existing cocoa-growing land is achievable, according to Mars’ global sustainability director Kevin Rabinovitch.

“Yields of cocoa in west Africa could be triple what they are today. No RD is required. The knowledge exists. The problem is getting the knowledge out to the cocoa farmers,” he says.

Here in Ireland, Glanbia is aiming to become leaders in sustainable dairying. Driven by the demands of Tesco and Walmart, as well as brands like Nestlé, it is improving energy efficiency and reducing wastewater levels in its factories while also rolling out a best practice framework to dairy farms.

“This will be a continuous improvement programme with specific targets for each of our 4,300 suppliers where we will focus on energy efficiency measures and those to reduce water use, such as rainwater harvesting that meet our energy, CO2 and water targets while saving them money,” says Glanbia’s strategic development director, Sean Molloy.

There may also be the possibility of working with Alltech on a “huge opportunity” in animal feed supplements that could reduce the methane produced by sheep and cattle, he adds.

For its part, having already developed natural nutritional supplements for animals that help to reduce the soil and water pollution that results from animal waste, Alltech’s founder Dr Pearse Lyons – a former brewer and MBA dropout – recently launched a crop science division whose aim is to replace agricultural fertilisers and pesticides with less environmentally harmful natural products derived from yeasts.

More radically, the company is conducting RD involving an area of science called nutrigenomics – which involves programming how an animal’s body uses the nutrients in its food in certain conditions. This could help to improve milk yields from cattle fed indoors, for example if weather patterns increased the need to do this.

With these developments in mind, optimists argue that the industry can meet the immense challenge of feeding a growing world population.

Farming will continue to become more intensive, says Dr Rickard. “The future is larger farms because they’ll be the most efficient and have the scale to generate the cash required to continuously increase their production. Farming is going to be highly rewarded, more scientific, more efficient and will involve increasing levels of technology.”

“It may be that this industry is where the IT and technology industry was in 1980 and it has a future that is as bright and as exciting as that was and still very much is,” adds Dorr.

At the moment, Ireland is well-placed to exploit these trends. Our increasing exports will be further boosted when the EU quota system for milk production ends in 2015.

But although scientists believe that the effects of climate change are likely to be non-linear – they won’t follow a particular pattern – the long-term trend towards drier summers in the south and east of the country predicted by Ireland’s leading climate scientist Prof John Sweeney of NUI Maynooth could have a significant impact on grass-fed dairy and beef.

Ultimately, for the entire world’s agricultural future, water is “the big unknown” – a point emphasised several times by industry experts and executives which perhaps demonstrates the level of their concern.

Farming is going to be highly rewarded, more scientific, more efficient and will involve increasing levels of technology