Dick Godwin 2015-02-23 23:29:05
In the U.K., several issues were brought to a head by the 2011 publication of the “Future of food and farming” report—a foresight report commissioned by the then chief scientist for the U.K. government, Sir John Beddington (www.gov.uk/government/publications/future-of-food-and-farming). Sir John referred to the situation that the report describes as the “the perfect storm.” The report highlighted six major concerns: • Global population increase. • Changes in the size and nature of per capita demand. • National and international governance of the food system. • Climate change. • Competition for key resources. • Changes in the values and ethical stances of consumers. The report also set five challenges: • Balancing future demand with sustainable supply and ensuring affordability. • Ensuring stability of supply and protecting the most vulnerable from volatility. • Achieving global access to food and ending hunger. • Managing the contribution of the food system to the mitigation of climate change. • Maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services while feeding the world. My colleagues and I read the report with much enthusiasm, only to be disappointed that there was no mention of the role of engineering! We made an appointment to see Sir John, who agreed with us and asked for a response. As a result, “Agricultural engineering: A key discipline enabling agriculture to deliver global food security” was published by the U.K.’s Institution of Agricultural Engineers (IAgrE) in 2012 (www.iagre.org/sites/iagre.org/files/repository/IAgrEGlobal_Food_Security_v2_WEB.pdf). The U.K. agricultural industry also rose to the challenge, and “Feeding the future” was published in 2013 (http://feedingthefuture.info/report-launch). This industry report covers the following topics, among others: • The use of modern technologies to improve the precision and efficiency of management practices. • The use of systems-based approaches to better understand and manage the interactions between soil, water, and crop/animal processes. • The development of integrated approaches for the effective management of weeds, pests, and diseases. • The training and professional development of researchers, practitioners, and advisors to promote delivery of the above. As a result of this on-going discussion, the U.K. government has launched its “agri-tech” strategy (www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-agricultural-technologies-strategy). We are still not sure how engineering will be represented; however, the strategy reflects the issues raised by the “Feeding the future” report. The recent call for consortia to provide centers for agricultural innovation cites the need for cross-disciplinary centers in “precision agriculture, engineering, and sensor technologies.” This brings me to a major problem: the “skills gap”—the void produced by the 20 years of decline in agricultural research, development, and extension, which saw many midcareer agricultural engineers leave the profession as world-class centers of excellence were closed. Their absence makes it difficult for recent graduates and postdocs to find experienced mentors. Another concern is the lack of firsthand experience in practical agriculture of many current postdocs. While I fully support the need for good science and publication, the focus on “publish or perish” in our universities and research stations can distort the mission. We will not feed the world on scientific publications alone, a fact that is sometimes overlooked by administrators who focus only on achieving the best academic standing for their university. There are plenty of opportunities to work with other professions. The only barriers are time, money, and above all good leadership and governance. The challenges are enormous, and because there are so few of us, we all need to work together, using our complementary skills, to feed the world. However, by working together, we will achieve this goal. Engineering solutions can deliver many of the short-term benefits that we so desperately need, thereby buying time for the benefits of the so-called “pioneering research” to come to fruition. In particular, the management of our soil and water resources is crucial, including alleviation of soil compaction as machine size and weight increase, improved management of scarce irrigation water, and maintenance and development of affordable land drainage and soil conservation measures. We also need to focus on reducing post-harvest losses, which are often in excess of 40% for a variety of reasons, from consumer wastage in the affluent world to the lack of knowledge, capital, and infrastructure in poorer regions. I leave you with the reminder that we grow all our food on less than 3% of the world’s surface, so managing our soil and water resources is crucial. This point is reinforced by two classic quotations—from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “The nation that destroys its soils destroys itself,” and from the much-quoted philosopher Anonymous: “Man has only a thin layer of soil between himself and starvation.” ASABE Fellow Dick Godwin, Emeritus Professor of Agricultural Engineering at Cranfield University, Visiting Professor at Harper Adams University, and Director, Dick Godwin Associates, Silsoe, U.K.; firstname.lastname@example.org. Top photo Kirsty Pargeter | Dreamstime. Mid-page photo by the author.
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