Innovation, entrepreneurship and technology have important roles to play in feeding the world’s growing population.
There is much to appreciate about small, local farms and their influence on our food supply. However, we need to look to the farmers that grow the majority of our food in order to sustainably deal with the problems presented by population growth.
Large-scale farmers, who are responsible for 80 percent of food sales – although they may make up fewer than eight percent of all farms – are among the most progressive and technologically savvy growers on the planet. Their rapid adoption of new technology has helped to create a far gentler impact on the environment than at any time previously, and a new wave of innovation makes them now even more sustainable.
There is a reason why modern farmers are turning to high-tech solutions, such as precision agriculture. Using location-specific information (GPS) about soil nutrients, moisture and productivity from the previous year, and new tools known as “variable rate applicators” (which can put fertilizer only on those areas of the field that need it) reduces the risk of nitrogen and phosphate run-off into our water courses.
Many food shoppers have difficulty in comprehending the scale and complexity of modern-day farming. Environmental legislation can at least give the consumer some degree of comfort about the safety and provenance of the food they eat, how it is produced, and where it comes from.
Before the so-called ‘factory farming’ became a pejorative term, agricultural scholars of the mid-20th century, such as Norman Borlaug, were calling for farmers to do just that — become more factory-like, business-like, and create a ‘Green Revolution’. From that time on, farm sizes have risen significantly. Efficiency and productivity — due to economies of scale — has revolutionized the way our food is produced, and also kept prices affordable. We now spend a lower proportion of our disposable income on food than at any other time in our history, and people in the developed world cannot imagine going hungry.
Modern farming technologies reduce the need for irrigation water, fertilizer, pesticides, and, in the process, harm done to the environment is also reduced.
The latest seed varieties, some of which were brought-about by bio-technology, have allowed farmers to convert to min-till and no-till cropping systems, and can encourage the adoption of nitrogen-fixing cover crops such as clover or lucerne to promote soil health. These practices are one reason why the rate of global soil erosion has declined by more than 40 percent since the 1980’s.
There are no easy answers as to how we feed the world’s growing population, but innovation, entrepreneurship and technology have important roles to play. So too, do the real-life large-scale farmers who grow the bulk of our food.
Robin Limb is an independent agricultural consultant from Hunstanton, Norfolk, United Kingdom.