Nuffield 2008 International Triennial Conference

‘Global Production Agriculture – What part will you play?’ was the theme of the 2008 International Nuffield Conference held in Ireland. The backdrop of the 2008 Conference was very different to the previous conference held in New Zealand some three years earlier. Several speakers at the New Zealand event warned of the effects of the changes which would affect the global food and energy demand supply situation by the middle of this century. But the intervening years had seen an unprecedented and more rapid rise in demand for food and other commodities particularly from China and India than the speakers had envisaged.

Auke Cnossen, of Rabobank International, opened the 2008 conference. Speaking to the title ‘Market Demand – the Global View’ he began by querying – ‘Asian demand – is it sustainable and what is the future?’ He posed the question – what are the drivers and how sustainable? Quoting population and income growth as the drivers, Auke Cnossen was confident that demand would be sustained, but John O’Reilly, the Dublin based Food Industry Analyst, who opened the discussion was dubious about some of the speaker’s arguments - “It is make believe in a world of linear progressions, adding extrapolation can be dangerous.” John O’Reilly spoke about China and India. He said they are countries with rising populations, coupled to severe environmental issues, land degradation and water problems, citing fresh water as a major world problem. With about 75% of world food production dependent on irrigation, John O’Reilly said food production will have to become more efficient in terms of energy and water.

Maurice Keane of Glanbia Foods, the international dairy company based in Ireland, looked at the needs of the global consumer. He said there will be less government market intervention, the UK would try to maintain a cheap food policy and there will be more price volatility. Maurice Keane said Glanbia needs to be different, it would have to be more innovative and said it was important to believe the consumer is right, even if you know they are wrong, but queried with the need for global food production to rise 130% by 2030 “How hungry will Europe have to be before GMs become acceptable?”

In looking at the barriers producers have to overcome, Donald McFetridge, the head of Retail Studies at University of Ulster, said there would be further consolidation of retailers, the demand for food would be positive, but consumers would become more price sensitive as pay increases fall behind retail food increases and consumers would be looking for value for money. He queried “have we the capacity and the intellectual capacity to achieve it – you can build on knowledge, but how do you transfer knowledge?”

Alex Avery, of the Hudson Institute spelt out some of the realities when he said “Over the next 50 years , human and plant science will face the greatest conservation and humanitarian challenge in history; supporting a global peak population of 9billion mostly affluent humans, without taking away too much land from nature.” Alex Avery explained, ignoring the ice-covered land masses, agriculture utilises about half the land, much of which is under grass or rangeland, with about 20% of the available area in crops... He said it would be essential to grow crops in the areas of the world most suitable for their production, backing his position by explaining that moving commodities about in large quantities by rail and sea is much more energy efficient than moving small quantities from where they were produced to satisfy local markets.

He was scathing about organic production. He said its potential low output would fail to produce enough food to satisfy world demand, saying we cannot have both an abundant, relatively low-cost food supply and an organic food supply, adding it is not possible to have meaningful food security and a predominantly local food system, although Alex Avery admitted it was a good way to connect with consumers. He was critical of the move towards biofuels, which he described as adding an unnecessary and massive burden to the global farm resource base.

He said the challenge for farmers in the 21st Century will be to produce enough food to feed the larger, more affluent population a socially acceptable diet without taking too much land away from nature and biodiversity. Alex Avery referred to the Green revolution of the 1960’s. He said it had overcome the looming spectre of 1 billion starving Asians by achieving near-miraculous increases in crop yields. He described the Green Revolution as the antithesis of organic farming. It had been led by plant breeders and supported by increased utilization of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation, saying the professional environmental activist NGOs have opposed all these strategies and are leading a campaign against GMOs in Europe. He said “We have got remote to consumers and need to stop shouting at one another and we need to educate consumers,” saying the resistance to GMOs is not as strong as we are told.

Alex Avery said the challenge is to repeat the success of The Green Revolution, but he said “The political and regulatory institutions are failing to keep up. Rather than sensible, science based, pragmatic policies to facilitate the adoption of improved farming methods and crop varieties – and their global trade - governments are to often building an ever more complex Orwellian regulatory system that hinders progress.” He said the real need was to apply more science and technology to turn high-yield farming into higher-yield farming.

The final presentation at the conference ‘Lessons along the way’ was given by Alastair McGuckian, an Irish scholar of 1967, who looked at beef and grassland at a time when rapid developments were taking place in beef production from grass and forage. Alastair paid tribute to the Nuffield Farming Scholarship scheme. He said his scholarship was the best thing he had ever done. Alastair explained it had a big impact on his life by giving him confidence and by creating opportunities to develop his business, the multi-facetted international agri-business, Mastock.

Sam Archer, a 2008 Australian scholar, gave a masterly summing up at the end of the conference. He began by saying “my back of the envelope calculation puts the collective agricultural experience of everyone gathered here today at in excess of 4,600 years.” Sam then went on to speak about the world-wide challenges the industry was having to face, which had been raised time and time again throughout the conference. Sam Archer listed them as – “climate change, food and water security, increased input costs, an aging rural population, a growing rural-urban disconnect, production constraints due to limited new farmland, land prices driven by proximity to urban centres and an urgent need for research and development.” He said few would deny our industry is faced with challenges and is required to manage significant risks: climate risk, production risk and financial risk. He quoted John F Kennedy “history will not accept difficulty as an excuse.” So Sam Archer laid down the challenge “What do we need to do to ensure we can participate in global agriculture?” - “We need good science, good economics and good policy.”

In concluding his summary he said “I know that as an industry we are often frustrated by failures in these critical areas. But I am confident that with the experience, leadership and demonstrated innovative capacity of Nuffield Scholars that we are well placed to drive and embrace the necessary changes to take advantages of the exciting times ahead for agriculture.”

The common themes heard throughout the conference have been:

  • Population growth and affluence will drive the market demand
  • Additional productive land is limited
  • Energy demand and policy have had, and will continue to have, a significant influence on agriculture
  • Global trade mechanisms must be efficient if they are to deliver agricultural progress and productivity
  • Technology has delivered great advances for agriculture, but we need to bring the wider community along with us if technology is to continue providing benefits to all mankind
  • Science should not be viewed in absolute terms of “good” and “bad”. We should determine an appropriate balance between the risks and benefits of adopting a particular scientific application and how it might be used.

2006 Triennial conference program (582 k PDF)

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