Evolving life sciences and agricultural research approaches may have a decreasing need to access physical resources in future, such as plant seeds or viral material. Information and genetic data may be all that is required for commercial exploitation of biological resources. This POSTnote summarises the challenge this creates for international discussions on the governance of genetic resources and the possible options for addressing these.
Documents to download
Trends in Agriculture (523 KB, PDF)
Global agricultural production might have to double in the next 30 years to meet changing food consumption patterns. Along with population growth, consumption patterns for some population groups are expected to converge on those typical of affluent countries. Four crops, maize, rice, wheat and soybeans, currently provide nearly two-thirds of global calorie intake. However, yields in these four crops are increasing at less than the 2.4% per year required to double global production by 2050.
The further intensification of agricultural production to meet growing food demand may increase its environmental impacts. For example, agriculture can have high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions because of the use of fossil-fuelled heavy machinery, such as tractors, and inputs, such as fertilisers. It is responsible for approximately 24% of global GHG emissions, with transportation accounting for 14%, and electricity and heat production for 25%. Agriculture is the biggest polluter of freshwaters in many countries, rates of water use for irrigation exceed replenishment in others and agricultural practices are partly responsible for declines in biodiversity and soil degradation.
An estimated 29% of all farms globally are involved in initiatives to increase food production without increasing their land use, which amounts 9% of agricultural land. Innovation and technological advances, such as data-enabled precision agriculture and robotic farming, may be one option for increasing yields while lowering inputs. However, studies have highlighted that such approaches will be insufficient to reduce the environmental impacts without changing dietary habits and reducing food waste.
Key points in this POSTnote include:
- Global requirements for food are changing. These include demand for higher quality products in developed countries and for higher protein diets in developing countries.
- Increasing future levels of agricultural production will be challenged by factors such as climate change, declining soil quality and agricultural land availability.
- Attitudes and behaviours of consumers affect production, such as trends in consumption of meat, demand for organic vegetables or locally sourced products.
- Regulation of the use of pesticides and fertilisers, and subsidies for technology will affect farmers’ choices, farm productivity, and may drive innovation.
- New agricultural technologies being developed to aid production include robots, drones, satellites and sensors.
- New breeding techniques may produce crops and livestock with novel traits, or accelerate the ability to deploy known traits.
POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees (some of whom were initially consulted in 2016) and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:
Professor Michael Winter, Professor of Land Economy and Society, University of Exeter*
Professor Ottoline Leyser, University of Cambridge*
Professor Charles Godfray, University of Oxford*
Professor Keith Goulding, Sustainable Soils Research Fellow, Rothamsted Research*
Professor Achim Dobermann, Director and Chief Executive of Rothamsted Research
Professor Lorna Dawson, Principal Soil Scientist, James Hutton Institute*
Dr Jemma Gornall, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh*
Graeme Cook, Director of SEFARI Gateway/Head of Research and Knowledge Exchange, Scottish Parliamentary Information Centre*
Professor Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex*
Dr Louise Manning, Senior Lecturer in Food Production Management, School of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Royal Agricultural University^
Professor Derek Stewart, Leader of Enhancing Crop Productivity and Utilization Theme, The James Hutton Institute^
Professor Pete Smith, Chair in Plant & Soil Science at the University of Aberdeen^
Professor Ian Crute, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board Member*
Tom Hind, Chief Strategy Officer at Agricultural & Horticultural Development Board
Dr Bill Parker, Research Director, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board
Ken Boyns, Market Intelligence Director, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board^
Dr Pete Falloon, Impacts Model Development Manager, Met Office^
Kristy Lewis, Met Office
Dr Helen Ferrier, NFU Chief Science and Regulatory Affairs Adviser
Gail Soutar, NFU Chief Economics and International Affairs Adviser^
Dr Andrew Francis, NFU Chief Economic Adviser
Sean Rickard, independent economic consultant, Sean Rickard Ltd.
Daniel Pearsall, Front Foot Communications Ltd
Professor Ian Boyd, Defra Chief Scientific Adviser
Maria Gonzalez-Rey, Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Stella D’Italia, Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Agri-food Technology Leadership Council
Jane Jackson, Government Office for Science
Arjune Keshwala, Government Office for Science
Peer review comments from Defra were also provided by: Luke Ridley, Mark Jacob, Louise Courts, James Heatley, Nancy Singh, Chloe Smale, Heather Dines and George Clarkson*
*Denotes people who acted as external reviewers of the briefing
^Denotes people who were consulted in 2016
Documents to download
Trends in Agriculture (523 KB, PDF)
Plastic packaging waste has become a key consumer concern. In the UK, over 2.2 million tonnes of plastic packaging enter the consumer market each year. Much of this is used in the food sector because plastic packaging is cheap, light to transport, hygienic, and can be used to extend the product’s shelf-life. In the UK around 46% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, mostly through local authority collections. However several issues with the current systems of plastics recycling persist. This POSTbrief reviews proposals to Defra and HM Treasury to improve plastics recycling in the UK .
The effect of consumers stockpiling certain goods and the slow reaction of retailers to ration them exposed the limitations of cost-efficient and streamlined supply chains to be agile and adapt to unforeseen shocks. This suggests that changes may be needed to make the supply chain more resilient. Specific problems arose from the closure of parts of the catering sector and the lack of agility in redistributing supplies from this sector to retail outlets or the food donation/charity sector. This was due to challenges in packaging availability, logistics and labelling requirements; leading to an increase in food loss. Agricultural food producers and the wider supply chain may have incurred significant losses from the impacts of COVID-19. Food processing facilities have been responsible for a number of localised COVID-19 outbreaks. This may be influenced by a range of factors, including the proximity of workers for prolonged periods, the need to speak loudly to communicate over the noise of the machines or the shared welfare spaces external to the factory setting. The immediate effects of COVID-19 on the food supply system are the current policy concern, but the longer-term food system issues highlighted as a result of the pandemic will have to be addressed by considering how to build resilience to possible future shocks.