Agricultural production faces a steep challenge as the world population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 10 billion by 2050. Many aspects of agriculture and consumer expectations will change in order for another 3 billion people to sit at the table.
The agricultural retooling will take place while nations juggle environmental factors such as climate change and fresh water quality and availability. Changes can be expected in both food production strategies and in the types of food that consumers want. Meats will likely be a smaller part of people’s diets and unscientific prejudices against genetic management of foods or against safe pesticides may be pushed aside by hunger and price pressures.
Farms will choose crops that make better use of land, chemicals, and water inputs, provided that consumers will pay for those products. Farmers’ selections will gradually shift away from production of animal protein because the “meat-based food system requires more energy, land, and water resources than the lactoovovegetarian diet… [which] is more sustainable than the average American meat-based diet.” Fishing is a traditional source of protein but the industry has faced steadily declining production since the 1990s.Moving forward, vegetable protein is a more expandable and low-cost source of protein. People will still prefer variety in their foods, but they will gradually succumb to price pressures and shift toward a more vegan diet.
Farms endure continual attacks by pests and that is unlikely to abate. “By 2050 many more opportunistic viruses, bacteria, fungi, blights, mildews, rusts, beetles, nematodes, flies, mites, spiders and caterpillars that farmers call pests will have saturated the world.” Used properly, pesticides will be in concentrations that pose no hazard to humans, but which will effectively repel or kill pests. As the expected pest load increases, “organic” farming may be unable to keep up, and the painfully higher retail prices for organic produce will push it beyond the reach of many consumers.
Genetically modified grain crops have been used since the 1990s to improve yields and resist pests. Shortly after their introduction, a cottage industry of genetic modification alarmists sprouted. Despite thousands of independent scientifically valid studies (not opinion polling) that show GM crops to be safe and nutritious, the deniers are dug in. Continued GM research may help farms improve the quantity of foods available.
Reliable sources of clean water for crop irrigation are difficult to obtain in some areas. In others, the future supply of water is in question. The Ogallala and other aquifers are depleting and water quality in some freshwater lakes is a concern due to sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial waste.
Today after some crops are harvested, they are not protected from pests and bruising during transportation to retailers. That will change. There are smart packaging technologies that can protect freshness and cleanliness of food as it travels from the farm field to the consumer’s refrigerator or table. Reduced spoilage benefits consumer’s health and pocketbook.
Somehow we must motivate regulators to be the protectors of ordinary consumers who are subject to real scientific assessments and real economics. Most of the 10 billion people who expect food regularly will be unimpressed by fairy tales of imaginary GMO-problems and organic insistence at any price. Those causes may be trendy, but they are imaginary issues that ordinary consumers cannot afford.
Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research