The “sustainable intensification” of farming – including the use of genetic modification (GM) – is vital for feeding the developing world and enabling global manufacturers to secure enough raw materials to feed a growing population.
That’s according to a leading academic and a former advisor to the Department for International Development (DFiD).
Speaking at the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival Conference last week, professor Sir Gordon Conway said "we have to intensify globally and within regions” in order to tackle a series of deepening “crises”.
Conway, who is now professor of international development at Imperial College London, said “we live in a world of crises in water, food, energy and civil strife, all of which seem to be getting worse”.
With one in six of the world’s population currently going hungry – and food prices not only going up but fluctuating wildly – he said food production had to be increased by 60–100% by 2050.
“There are a number of challenges to this,” he added. “Population is a factor … but the biggest is that China and India are adopting western-style diets and eating more meat.”
Climate change was also shortening growing periods, he said, while the lack of new arable land and water was a major stumbling block to progress.
In response, he said “sustainable intensification” was the solution, especially in Africa where average yields stand at just 1t/ha, compared with 6t in the UK.
This would require increasing the production, income and nutrition, on the same amount, or less, land, while efficiently using inputs to minimise greenhouse gas emissions.
Crop resilience should be strengthened and overall environmental impacts reduced by using innovative technologies and processes, added Conway.
To achieve this, Conway advocated transferring the principles of precision farming – where technology is used to pinpoint which fertilisers to use on which exact patch of land – from the west to Africa.
In that region the efficiency of fertiliser use for cereal production fell from 80% to 30% between 1960 and 2000.
More effective markets would also have to be established on a local level to enable poor farmers to lift themselves out of poverty, he said.
He added ecological intensification via intercropping – the utilisation of mutually beneficial ecological relationships arising out of two or more crops being grown in association – and organic farming would have to be explored.
He also told delegates that genetic approaches would have a crucial role to play in feeding a growing population.
This included conventional cross breeding, as highlighted by the recent spread of orange sweet potato across Africa, which was usually white.
“This means it had no beta-carotene, and therefore no vitamin A,” he added.
While he conceded that “GM is not going to feed the world in the next 30 years”, he said it was becoming increasingly important where there were significant problems with crop disease.
GM had led to bananas in Uganda now being resistant to wilt. The key here, however, was that the project had been funded by the Ugandan government with help from the UK and US, “not Monsanto”.
“You don’t need large-scale private funding to do GM,” he added.