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Professor paints a gloomy global picture

Professor paints a gloomy global picture, but with a local upside

If his objective was to leave his audience feeling a little unsettled or with a sense of foreboding then Lincoln University Professor of Agricultural Systems, Tony Bywater, probably succeeded.

In a special open lecture to staff and students recently, Professor Bywater presented his own reflections on a range of statistics and projections initially compiled by Australian science commentator, Julian Cribb.

The data outlined the implications for humankind from what is considered to be an inevitable environmental crisis stemming from the confluence of three key factors; namely, ever increasing energy demands, increasingly limited water resources, and climate change.

According to Professor Bywater, combining these three factors leads to the none too insignificant issue of global food shortages, which, in turn, will bring about additional concerns, such as an increase in food prices (a trend he believes we are already witnessing) and a dramatic rise in the number of displaced people (again, something that is already occurring).

With no immediate or ‘quick fix’ technological solutions available, and insufficient timeframes to avert any crisis, Professor Bywater maintains that large scale global famine is inevitable, which itself will be a major trigger of global unrest.

Pulling no punches, he noted how we are currently using resources and consuming at a rate of 1.3 planets. This ‘ecological overshoot’ is expected to become all the more dire, with current projections suggesting that the equivalent of two planets would be required by 2050.

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A significant factor in this gloomy equation is the rapidly growing global population, which is estimated to reach 11 billion by 2100. But this doesn’t tell the whole story: a growing percentage of the population is also living longer and becoming wealthier, thereby increasing the demand for particular foods. For instance, the research suggests that the demand for meat products increases dramatically for those moving from a low income into a low-medium income group.

Meeting this increasing demand is hampered by issues such as climate change, where it is estimated that a 1 percent increase in global temperature equates to an estimated 10 percent decrease in food production.

There are also increasing strains on key, and increasingly scarce, resources, such as water and oil. Professor Bywater references one commentator who suggests there will be insufficient water to feed ourselves within 25 years; particularly as cities are expected to double their demand for water by 2050, while the energy sector demand is expected to triple.

Coupling these problems with others such as widespread land degradation and the picture looks somewhat stark.

“The farmer’s challenge boils down to doubling food production with far less available land, eventually no fossil fuels, and scarce or very costly fertilisers; and all under conditions of increased drought and greater climatic variability,” says Professor Bywater.

Although the crisis is presented as having a certain inevitability – in fact, Professor Bywater argues that it is already well underway – those attending the presentation were left with some positives for mitigating the situation.

As well as looking at ways to reduce the enormous level of food wastage in some parts of the world, it has been suggested that there is a need to ‘reinvent food’. Part of this entails biocultures and harnessing current technologies that allow food to be grown in urban spaces (such as on rooftops or in specially designed vertical structures), as well as devoting more resources toward further developing high-efficiency, low-input eco-farming systems. It may also mean changing our diet.

Professor Bywater also suggests that spending on research and development for agricultural systems needs to double at the very least.

“Across Western countries, only 1.8% of research and development spending goes into agriculture,” says Professor Bywater. “Moreover, aid specifically targeted at food production has dropped significantly over the years.”

“In fact, currently around $40 billion is spent every year on agricultural research, yet $1,500 billion is spent on military weaponry. For the reasons I’ve outlined, it’s important to see food research as a kind of defence spending,” he says.

While New Zealand will not be as adversely affected as other countries, particularly when it comes to water resources, it’s believed the country will still be affected by high food prices and pressures from displaced people.

Professor Bywater sees this as a tremendous opportunity for New Zealand to capitalise on its natural and competitive advantage in food production, and an opportunity for Lincoln University on account of the institution’s specialist land-based research, describing it as an “exciting time for agricultural research.”

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