The major challenges influencing 2015 world food production - 2 - Veterinary Practice
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The major challenges influencing 2015 world food production – 2

Dr Tony Andrews concludes his discussion of the challenges facing food producers in feeding an ever expanding population and the need for changes in attitudes and an increase in co-operation.

AS available agricultural land will reduce, national and international planning will need to be far-sighted and with specific priorities.

Within a country or region, all land will need to be designated as to a primary pursuit. As a start, suggested designations could be:

  1. Agriculture and food production.
  2. Recreational and environmental.
  3. Residential.
  4. Industrial/wealth creation.

In each area, any alterations would be prioritised under the designated planning heading. Thus, in the agricultural priority areas, almost all change would be focused both directly and indirectly on overall improvement or increased food production.

Most areas in the world that are available for agriculture are already in some form of production. Most of the unused land areas and regions such as the Amazonian rain forest and their removal have consequential environmental effects. In many parts of the world, available agricultural land could be used more profitably and efficiently. As most land for other uses (residential or industrial) is difficult to reclaim for food production, agricultural land will need to be keenly guarded from encroachment.

As climate change continues, it is likely that some areas will have to adjust their production and some will be unusable, although judicial water usage may partly or completely mitigate these production losses.

Already in some areas, availability of water could help transform barren land to production as has happened to some extent in some Middle Eastern countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Areas already capable of food production in some countries will need to be better managed to increase productivity. This is particularly the case in parts of Africa, Asia and Europe.

The use of hydroponics in buildings could lead to intensive production of some types of food as well as fodder for food animal production. Whilst it does require concentrations of energy and water, it can be done economically, with potential to recycle some of the waste products. These buildings can be multi-storey and so provide effective use of land.

Energy demands will increase

Overall, energy may well be the least restrictive of the constraints on food production. Recently, in some parts of the world, technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) have altered the price of energy: so, for example, the USA has become an exporter of energy rather than a net importer.

However, this and many other sources are still not renewable. As fossil-type fuels will still remain an important part of the energy mix, there is a need to do research to improve the efficiency of extraction and utilisation of these finite energy resources and the by-products they can produce.

Perhaps the easiest and possibly a reasonably economic way to produce energy is the use of nuclear power in areas with stable geology. Renewable sources of energy are being used but do not appear to be the panacea that advocates have suggested. Again, research should continue to make them more efficient.

Some theoretical possibilities of constant energy, such as wave power, still at present appear to be impractical on a large scale. Climate change and the anticipation of local change could assist in producing energy by solar, wind or hydroelectric means in the right places. All such renewable energies must become more cost-efficient.

The use of biofuels should also be economic or produced from by-products, although as the land used acts as a carbon repository they should not be grown on land capable of effective food production.

On livestock farms, anaerobic digestion (AD) plants and incineration facilities can be used to produce energy for the farm or more widespread needs. Waste should, wherever possible, not go to landfill but be recycled or used for incineration. Generally, more effective incineration of urban waste could be used to provide local energy or heating and in some cases on a wider scale.

Water demands will greatly increase
Possibly water will be the greatest restriction to future agricultural production and affect population movement. Over 70% of the world’s surface is covered by seawater and about 97% of all seawater is mainly contained within the oceans.

Less than 1% of total water is available as fresh water with about another 2% frozen as ice or snow. This shows the precarious nature of this vital resource. Much of the water available arises from precipitation such as mist, rain and snow. Therefore, more effective methods of capturing and storing water need to be installed. Once captured, fresh water will need to be used sparingly by means of suitable irrigation systems or hydroponics.

Again, there is a need for research but also implementation of already available technology. In many parts of the world, even including Britain, there is a need to provide networks to effectively transport water. Some of these sites and networks can also be used to generate power.

Again, climate change and its anticipation can be used to allow efficient water capture, storage and distribution. This can be done on the large scale as well as the small where technologies such as sand dams are now being used, particularly in Africa.

Desalination is used in some areas such as the Middle East and Europe (Spain). However, surprisingly little is undertaken in China, India and the USA. Methods of desalinating water will need to be more thoroughly examined with the aim of becoming more economic, and more efficiently using energy within the process. Thus, use of excess energy produced for other purposes is one way to deal with this – so-called cogeneration. As most desalination plants will occur at the coastline, effective water transport methods will again need to be available.

Once fresh water is used by agriculture and elsewhere, then effective systems of waste water treatment and re-use need to be installed. This is of importance in residential and industrial areas as well as on arable and livestock farms.

Greenhouse gas

Greenhouse gas (GHG) footprints are considered more important to look at rather then carbon footprints, which only include carbon dioxide (CO2). These footprints tend to be used politically as they can, up to a point, be quantified.

Most of us are aware of this concept but its implications on food production may not have been taken sufficiently into account by many veterinary surgeons.

The production and management of GHGs is important and of value when considering energy production and usage; however,  there appear to be several different ways of making the calculations and these can considerably alter the contributions to food production, especially of animals.

Many calculations appear to show the carbon or GHG costs in relation to the product ready for consumption, rather than looking more at the individual components of animal or food production. The human GHG footprint is considered large, so also is that of companion animals such as dogs and cats as they tend to be predominantly meat eaters. In 2013 DEFRA estimated that UK agriculture and forestry were responsible for 7% of national GHG emissions.

It is not always taken into account that in some areas of the world grass production is the most efficient way of utilising some areas of land; also it does not always take fully into account the beneficial effects of land usage for carbon capture.

Some work is now being produced to show how some of the carbon and GHGs can be reduced in animal production but such work makes the assumption that the present calculations are correct and does not really acknowledge the benefits of food production in the wider context.

It appears probable that this is an area in which some farm and companion animal veterinarians will need to look carefully and deeply at the fundamental principles on which the calculations are made.

Calculations based on anthropogenic greenhouse gas production as food are shown in Table 1. However, calculations do not compare or include naturally occurring phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, geothermal areas, etc. Also, what is the price in terms of carbon or GHG footprints of natural ora and fauna?

It does seem probable that discussions need to take place and decisions will need to be made as to whether or not food from animals is acceptable and at what cost to the environment.


The above lays down some of the fundamental problems and the resources needed for food and animal production. The answers to these will determine how well the world will be able to manage in 2050.

Unless there is considerably less obstruction and considerably more co-operation between different people on an individual, national and international basis, things look bleak. Even without tackling the increasing population problem, with a little ingenuity much can already be done to reach the needed food requirements and allow effective distribution.

There will need to be debate as to how food production, other than for vegetarians, will be allowable if the present system of greenhouse gas considerations continue to be used.

  • An attempt will be made to look at how animal production can be continued in a future article.


Andrews, A. H. (2012) Feed the world – the next agricultural revolution. Neo, retro or both? Second Opinion 1: 107-113.

Food and Agricultural Organization (2006) Livestock’s Long Shadow, pp1-390.

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