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Challenges for the Agricultural and Food Industries

The Centre for Contemporary Agriculture (CCA) has been established to help address a range of challenges, both national and international.

National challenges

Skills Shortage

The average age of farmers in the UK is now 59, and there are fewer appropriately educated and trained people to replace these farmers when they retire. It is inevitable that unless there is a radical change in recruitment there will be a critical shortage within a decade. While this might be good news for those hoping to enter the agricultural industry - there will be jobs! - there is understandable concern at the national level that recruitment should not be too little, too late. Related to this, many small farms struggle to be economically viable, and whilst there are a variety of new schemes to redress this, there are not enough skilled people to implement these plans. More urgently, recent government surveys indicate that the level of skills in the agri-food sector has fallen behind that in others and to turn this around requires both investment in and support of training. A central goal of the CCA will be to provide skills training, principally for the arable farming sector in the East of England.

Adapting to Change

The agri-food industries have to adapt to changes happening now as well as those which will happen in the near future. One challenge is for food production to maintain current levels of productivity whilst at the same time becoming sustainable. In this context sustainability means that the inputs, or raw materials, for agriculture and food production must be renewable and demonstrably available for the foreseeable future. The current dependence of the agri- food sector on fossil fuel is not sustainable. A feature of the courses offered by the CCA is a focus on ways to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

The other side of sustainability is that the impact of the agri-food industry should not be detrimental to the environment. Huge progress has already been made to reduce contamination of water supplies by fertilisers and pesticides, but this needs to be sustained, advanced, and supported by reliable knowledge. Of concern too is the effect of intensive agriculture on biodiversity. This has been recognised relatively recently but must be developed through proper recognition and reward for farmers to develop their role as stewards of the countryside.

The food and drink industry in the UK has an excellent track record of high quality produce and innovation. It nevertheless is being asked to reduce its carbon footprint, which is the third-highest in the UK, after transport and building. In addition, the requirements on the food industry to produce food that is both safe to eat and nutritious will only grow and become more challenging.

International Challenges

Agriculture and food production in the UK are relatively healthy and, as a trading nation, the UK will continue to import food which at the moment is more than 30% of what we eat. There is growing concern however over how we, and the world, will meet the challenge to double food production by the year 2050 when the world population will have reached 9 billion people, with no change in "input". The concerns are that (i) there is not enough land that could be turned over to agriculture to meet the anticipated increased demand for food (a solution which has worked in the past); (ii) fresh water reserves for agricultural irrigation are under threat from over-abstraction; and (iii) the spectacular increase in agricultural productivity over the last century, which has allowed population growth to current levels, was dependent on the invention of the Haber process, which uses fossil fuel to make inorganic nitrogen fertiliser. Presently, although less than 5% of the world's fossil fuel is used annually to manufacture nitrogen fertiliser, it seems unlikely that this can be increased to help meet the growing demand for food. Realistic and sustainable solutions urgently need to be developed. A feature of the courses offered by the CCA is the development of drought tolerant, adapted, high- yielding varieties of food crops that have low demand for nitrogen fertiliser.

The Role of Training and Education

Solutions to the challenges that face agriculture and food production over the next critical 50 years will be developed by a new generation of highly motivated, well- educated, knowledgeable and well-trained people. The central goal for the Centre for Contemporary Agriculture is to help support, train and educate this new generation.

References

The Royal Society
Reaping the benefits: Science and sustainable intensification of global agriculture

BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council)
Secure Harvests

DEFRA Agritech Strategy

Government Office for Science
Report by John Beddington CMG FRS, Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government
Food, energy, water and the climate: A perfect storm of global events?

Future of Farming Review July 2013

The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability (Published January 2011)

World Summit on Food Security, November 2009
Declaration of the World Summit on Food Security