842 million people in the world are poorly nourished and 2.1 billion are overweight
Sitting inside the air-conditioned cab of a diesel-fuelled combine harvester with a MP3 player plugged in, is far removed from the choking dust and relentless noise of a 1940s binder and the steam-driven threshing machines.
Now farmers get a real-time read out of the yield as they harvest and use that information to programme fertiliser applications the next year. Today in Britain wheat yield is around 7-10 tonnes per hectare; in the 1950s it was 3-4 tonnes.
Three full-time workers are all that is needed for a 1,000 hectare high-tech arable farm today, together with barns full of modern machinery and chemicals.
In the 1950s smaller farms, typically a fifth the size, would have produced a mix of meat, milk and field crops and employed 13 people to do that. Across Britain, the agricultural workforce has shrunk to a fifth the size it was 50 years ago; all the result of technology.
Organic farming Where we once had one style of farming, we now have many. Organic farming has increased greatly in recent years, but only accounts for about 4% of farms in the UK. In contrast, highly intensive farming of the land helps produce the sheer volume of food that the world needs, but at a cost. It has meant that some hedgerows have been pulled up and the diversity and numbers of wild plants and animals on farmland has declined.
The environmental cost Though agriculture covers 70% of the UK’s land area, we import much of our food. We have developed cosmopolitan tastes; we have lost all sense of seasonality; supermarkets may source food more cheaply from overseas; and our climate limits what we can grow.
For most of us, our average weekly food basket at the supermarket comes from all around the world. Weighing up the costs and benefits of that is very difficult. The environmental cost of transporting the food to the UK is high; but it does generate income for growers, often in poorer nations, however in some countries it may also use their scarce water resources.