The challenges ahead of feeding a growing global human population were brought into sharp focus in London this week at the presentation of the 23rd Temperton Report on Poultry Research entitled ‘The Challenge of Scale for the Benefit of the Consumer’, in association with Harper Adams University.
Author of the report, David Evans, is an Australian from a farming family who qualified as a veterinary surgeon, opted for the path of business with an MBA and is now Head of Agriculture for Wm Morrison Supermarket in the UK.
In the conclusion to his study, he said: “The future challenge of food systems is to provide food to people in every society across the planet and the solutions will be as much global as they will be local.
“It will be the role of the food companies to provide their customers with continuous access to food, and how they do this in the near future will most likely be very different from today.
“The change will be rapid as 30 years in agriculture is not that long,” Mr Evans warned.
Changes in the Global Human Population
Using the FAO’s definition of food security as one in which “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”, he has illustrated the challenges of achieving food security for the United Nations’ median estimate for the human population of nine billion in 2050 and 10.5 billion by 2100.
The situation is made more challenging by the fact that the growth is not evenly spread across all countries; while little expansion or even contraction is expected in developed countries, the highest rates of growth are forecast in countries such as Nigeria and India.
Furthermore, there is a strong trend of movement from rural areas to the cities, Mr Evans said, so that, by 2050, 70 per cent of the global population will live in urban areas – where infra-structure, the provision of services and adequate earnings are by no means guaranteed.
Supplying Enough Food to a Mega-city
A megacity, as defined by the United Nations, has a population of 10 million or more people. In 1990, there were just 10 of these conurbations in the world, rising to 28 in 2014 and there are forecast to be 41 such habitations by 2050, many of them in west Africa, south Asia and south-east China.
So the areas of the planet that will require food to be delivered and those where food is produced are likely to diverge even further than they are today.
As the urban areas spread, it will become increasingly difficult to supply the megacity’s population with food from local sources.
And the quantities of food calculated by Mr Evans to be required by an Asian megacity of 20 million people, for example, are mind-blowing. Assuming an average daily consumption of 2.5kg of food per person, 50,000 tonnes or 3,300 fully loaded articulated trucks would have to enter the city every single day.
And while much of the chicken and pork requirements could be produced locally, 25,000 tonnes of feed would require transportation into the area every week to support this production, he estimates.
Re-thinking the Food System
Food systems and food supply systems will need to change radically to meet these needs, Mr Evans contends.
As he explained, a simple food supply chain begins with primary production (for example, on the farm) and may go through a number of stages of primary, secondary and tertiary processing before distribution and finally, delivery to the consumer outlet, be that a local street market or supermarket.
Food systems, on the other hand, cover the internal and external factors that influence the delivery of food to the population, and include such diverse elements as employment, food safety, land ownership, ethics and environment – in other words, all those factors meeting the needs of society generally.
According to Mr Evans, food systems are likely to evolve over the next 50 years but the outcomes are not always clear. For example, demands for local food production by food activists may appear to be desirable on a local scale but they may conflict with the aim of achieving food security on a global scale.
“Any food system can be inherently good or bad, and different systems will evolve to meet the different needs of society, rich and poor,” Mr Evans said.
Introducing the Economics of Scale Concept
Having been around for 100 years, the concept ‘Economics of Scale’ is not new to the food sector but it will be more widely used in future, according to Mr Evans, as the model is based on four key deliverables:
• efficient conversion of resources to food
• efficient movement of food along the supply chain
• efficient food supply planning and
• efficient use of capital.
Economics of Scale comprises five key economic principles: economies of scale; return to scale; economies of scope; scalability and co-operative economies. Combined, these not only reduce the cost of food but they allow for more robust control of food safety, quality, supply & demand planning and risk management, according to Mr Evans.
For the food supply chain, this boils down to the application of co-operative economics, by which the individual parts of the supply chain interact with one another to optimise individual business efficiency. Examples of co-operative economics include group purchasing of inputs, shared skilled human resource functions, shared equipment and facilities and group marketing of outputs. This will have the big impact of food affordability.
Moving into the Process Revolution
While the Green Revolution dramatically increased crop yields and animal performance and reduced the food prices, Mr Evans said that a Process Revolution will be required to save the same number of human lives in the next 30 or 50 years.
A new era of food production needs to start with making basic nutrition available to all, say 2,700 kcal per day for 10 billion people. Making the food system sustainable will mean considering then food safety and nutrition, food supply and economic viability and finally, the responsible use of the planet’s resources.
Mr Evans sees limited further scope for technological breakthrough, citing a slowing down in the increase in wheat yield per hectare, for example. Instead, he contends, the focus should be on improving output from the least efficient farms.
The cost of getting food from farm to fork also deserves re-evaluation in this Process Revolution as the efficiency of moving goods along the supply chain needs to be improved for food security to be achieved.
With the dairy sector as an example, Mr Evans went on to illustrate the globalisation of the food supply. Dairy products are highly nutritious, yet many people in Asia had little access to them until their incomes improved.
Demand has been met by countries with well-developed and efficient dairy industries such as New Zealand, Australia, the US and European Union.
This growth in demand has meant greater trade, a reduction in protection for local producers and a narrowing of the previous wide variation in local dairy prices towards a single – if highly volatile - global price.
Sustainable Intensification as the Solution?
Finally turning his attention to food policy, Mr Evans said that governments will still need to protect their people, land and services.
It is the alignment of food security with regulation, economic protection, consumer protection and food policy that will be critical for managing the future food supply, he stressed.
All this points to the need for large-scale efficient food systems – a concept known as sustainable intensification – that is the most likely solution to our future food supply, Mr Evans said, adding that key focus for future innovations in the food systems will need to be on addressing concerns regarding the protection of the environment and scarce resources as well as the ethics around food production.
The Temperton Fellowship in Poultry Research was established in 1989 to commemorate the contribution of Dr Harold Temperton, Director of the National Institute of Poultry Husbandry at Harper Adams Agricultural College from 1951 to 1974.
Copies of the full report, ‘The Challenge of Scale for the Benefit of the Consumer’ by Mr Evans can be obtained by contacting Harper Adams University (email@example.com).