Food production will have to increase by 70% in the next 40 years to feed a growing world population. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP
Agricultural evolution first occurred 10,000 years ago when plants were selected and grown as crops, and animals were domesticated. Further revolution of our food industry – from mechanisation in the early 18th century right through to genetic selection today – has been driven by technological innovation and the dissemination of knowledge.
Yet another revolution will be required to manage the growth, disease control and precision engineering necessary in our future food industry. Food production will have to increase by 70% in the next 40 years to feed a growing world population. It will have to do so with the same agricultural footprint, and without depleting our natural resources or destroying our environment.
It will be a revolution of discovery, and it will require collaboration between all the elements of a food industry – which has itself evolved through searingly competitive practice. Universities, research institutes and industry will need to harness their combined intellect to make the substantive advances necessary to keep feeding our people.
New generations of graduates should leave university with the intellectual capacity to use technology in imaginative, productive and profitable ways. They should have the flexibility to embrace the unknown.
Estimates suggest that UK agriculture needs 60,000 more workers for optimal productivity, and to be internationally competitive the sector will require graduates with advanced problem-solving skills.
There are currently 7,000 agriculture students graduating from UK universities and colleges each year – insufficient to replace the 10,000 or so leaving the industry through retirement, never mind increasing their numbers. Agricultural businesses must work with universities and colleges to design courses that will produce graduates fit for the future; they should offer student placements to ensure that graduates get the business and practical skills essential to their future employment.
The challenges of harmonious collaboration at each stage of discovery, implementation, production and distribution in the food chain are manifold, but the prize of a world-leading and internationally competitive industry will be realised if all links in the chain work together.
A further – and greater – challenge for society is to embrace our global responsibility for fair trade and nutritional security for all. The perversity of a world where 1.6 billion people are overweight while a billion are still malnourished must be addressed.
A technological revolution will not solve social, political and economic inequity. But as, the green revolution demonstrated in India, it will be one of the answers.
Professor Quintin McKellar CBE is vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire and co-chair of the National Centre for Universities and Business taskforce on the food economy.