Field of innovation

The impending food crisis will require unprecedented collaboration between engineers and the farming industry

The beginning of the year often has a vaguely doom-laden air about it, and 2010 hasn’t disappointed so far. Brought to its knees by the white stuff, the UK, warns National Grid, could soon be facing up to the ugly reality of an energy shortfall.

Meanwhile, if the government’s direst predictions are to be believed, the current spate of snow-induced panic buying could be a grim foreshadowing of a future food crisis.

Talking at this week’s Oxford Farming conference, environment secretary Hilary Benn, warned that the spiraling world population and the ravages of climate-change could quickly undermine the security of the UK’s food supply.

Benn’s comments were made at the launch of the government’s 2030 food plan, a package of ideas aimed at shoring up the UK’s food supply by boosting domestic food production.

No one would dispute that this is an issue requiring serious attention. Back in 2008, the government’s chief scientific adviser John Beddington, described the impending food crisis as the biggest challenge facing humanity. With the amount of land available for cultivation decreasing, the world’s food supply, he said, needs to increase by 50 per cent by 2050. 

The main thrust of the government’s food plan appears to be that by urging people to grow their own and buy sustainably farmed food it should be possible to effect positive change in farming and retail practice.

It’s a worthy aim, but given the scale of the challenge, the idea that people power will avert a food crisis is, we would argue, somewhat naïve. The reality is that to produce enough food at the right price, will require the farming industry to engage with Engineers to an extent not seen since the golden days of the industrial revolution.

It will be ever greater levels of sophistication – from fleets of robotic harvesters to smart sensors that monitor the soil for nutrients, pests and disease – and not a mass grow your own movement that will keep food on our tables over the coming decades.

Fortunately, as a forthcoming report in The Engineer points out, engineers are already awake to the challenges and opportunities this crisis presents. The Technology Strategy board along with DEFRA and the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) is investing to £75m in a food Innovation platform – that’s investigating a variety of new approaches to boosting production. Admittedly, it’s a drop in the ocean alongside the investments in some other sectors, but it’s a start – and it might just herald the dawn of a new age of hi-tech farming.