Cutting household waste is as important as changing our agriculture practices to ensure we can feed our growing world, says Davy McCracken
It may have escaped your notice, but the recent launch of the UK Agricultural Technologies Strategy represents a marked change in UK government thinking about agriculture and food security.
Although the importance of agriculture to the economy has long been recognised in Scotland, it has been relatively low on the UK political agenda for much of the past ten years.
Now, however, the emphasis is firmly on ensuring that the UK is a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability. In particular, the new strategy highlights the need for the UK to respond to the global challenge of “sustainable intensification” of agriculture.
Food production needs to increase to feed growing population
This is often taken simply to mean producing more food with fewer resources. But the rationale behind the need for sustainable intensification is, and has to be, much more all-encompassing.
By 2050 the population of the world is expected to have increased from seven billion to nine billion people, 75 per cent of whom will be living in towns and cities. It has been estimated that global food production will need to increase by 70 per cent if we are to feed all of us.
So clearly producing more food has to be a priority across the globe.
But it is also recognised that the intensification of agriculture which has helped increase food production to date has also damaged many environmental resources which are essential to the continuing viability of farming.
For example, the extraction of water for irrigation of agricultural crops can lead to water shortages during dry periods, with knock-on effects for hydro-power production, drinking water supplies and wetland ecosystems – and also for other farms downstream of the extraction sites.
Therefore, reducing the negative impacts of farming on soil, water and natural habitats also has to be an increasing priority across the globe.
But simply reducing such impacts will not be enough. To be really sustainable in the long term, farming needs to develop in ways that allow these essential environmental resources to recover and expand.
Only then will sufficient resources continue to be available for use by future generations of farmers.
So why should this be of concern to us here in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK?
First of all, although it is recognised internationally that the Scottish and UK farming industries produce high-quality goods, our farms are not immune from resource depletion issues happening at the local level. These include decreases in soil and water quality, or those issues driven by climate change, such as the impacts of extreme weather events on yields or the increase in occurrence of crop and livestock pests coming in from abroad.
Neither does all the food that is harvested from Scottish and UK farms always reach the consumer.
For example, 25 to 50 per cent of the six million tonnes of potatoes harvested in the UK each year are lost along the food supply chain, mostly through water losses and skin damage that occur while the potatoes are in storage.
And even once the food reaches the consumer it is not always used wisely. Scottish households alone throw away 566,000 tonnes of food waste every year. More than two-thirds of this could have been avoided if food purchases had been more effectively planned and managed and food better stored.
Avoidable food waste from households therefore currently costs Scotland £1 billion per year, equivalent to £430 per household per year.
Reducing the negative environmental impacts
This is not an insignificant sum, particularly given that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation forecast last month that food prices could rise globally by as much as 40 per cent over the next decade.
Let us be clear. Sustainable intensification will not stop food prices rising. But if implemented effectively, it could help limit the size of future price rises and hence reduce the overall impact on all Scottish and global consumers in general and the poorest sections of society in particular.
So, reducing the negative environmental impacts associated with agricultural production is not just “a good thing to do”. In fact, it will be essential to ensure the future viability of Scottish, UK, European and global farming systems, as well as the future well-being of a growing world population.
But if it is to be achieved effectively in practice, then the sustainable intensification of farming will not only have to involve the farmers producing our food, but will also need much more sustainable practices to be implemented across the food supply chain and by us as consumers.
• Professor Davy McCracken is leader of the sustainable ecosystems team at Scotland’s Rural College. Find the latest SRUC news on Twitter @srucnewsevents