The era of cheap food is over, and prices are likely to rise significantly in coming decades, due to the increase in the global population and a worldwide shift towards eating more meat and dairy produce, a major study into the future of farming has concluded.
Governments will have to embrace new agricultural techniques, including genetically modified (GM) crops to boost food production, according to scientists who compiled the report, The Future of Food and Farming.
They warn that the existing food system is failing in two major ways: nearly a billion people in the world are left hungry, with another billion suffering from dietary deficiencies; at the same time, agriculture is continuing to degrade the natural environment in a fundamentally unsustainable way.
"Without change, the global food system will continue to degrade the environment and compromise the world's capacity to produce food in the future, as well as contributing to climate change and the destruction of biodiversity," says the report by the Foresight Project on Global Food and Farming Futures in the Government Office for Science.
The scientists believe that a second "green revolution" is needed to boost crop yields but, unlike the first green revolution of the 1960s, this one must not degrade the soil, water or climate on which farming relies.
No new technologies, such as GM crops or animal cloning, should be excluded a priori on ethical or moral grounds, they said. "To a good approximation, there is no new land that can be brought into agriculture. We're going to have to produce more food from the same area, and we need to do this by sustainable intensification," said Professor Charles Godfray of Oxford University, the chairman of the report's expert group. The global food price spikes of 2007 and 2008, which led to riots in some poorer countries that rely on food imports, were a sign of what is likely in the future when price volatility is more common. "Some increase in prices is almost inevitable," Professor Godfray said.
The report rejected the idea that nations must become self-sufficient in food, arguing that global trade would be better at ensuring food is distributed from "bread basket regions" to where it is needed. The advisers said it is important to avoid export bans at times of "food stress", and that such bans almost certainly exacerbated the crisis of 2007-08.
Nevertheless, the scientists believe food prices will increase in real terms by at least 50 per cent over 40 years, because of supply shortages as demand rises in line with a growing world population that is also modifying its diet. And social and economic turmoil could make food far more scarce and more expensive still, they warned.
"There's a very large risk of quite a substantial increase in food prices in the next 30 to 40 years. This risk is such that it demands urgent action on all components of the food system: supply, demand and making the food system work more efficiently," said Professor Sir John Beddington, the Government's chief scientist.