Sustainable Development Challenges

Plant and agricultural biosciences innovations have a critical role to play in ensuring future food security and sustainable development. Such a role is as critical to Ireland and Europe, as it is to developing countries. The bio-derived resource demands of humans will continue to increase over the coming decades posing “mega-challenges” for sustainable development.
In 2011, the human population will reach 7 billion (7000 million) people all of whom have requirements for food, feed, fuel (energy), fibre, fuel, chemicals and medicines to sustain their health and livelihoods. As incomes and purchasing power rises, such resource requirements will rise also. Where food and energy supply does not keep pace with demand, this leads to price rises that disproportionately affect the poor and poorest in all societies.
Facilitated by agri-research innovations (i.e predominantly in plant & animal biosciences) and fossil-fuel energy derived from biomass generated from past photosynthesis (plants & microalgae in the Carboniferous era), human population on the planet has increased from ~ 20 million two thousand years ago (AD1) to 3 billion people by 1960. Human population is expected to plateau at 9 billion people around 2045.
The food security challenge is immense and urgent - according to the most recent FAO report on the ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World’, there are already over 1 billion under-nourished people in developing countries, suffering from the interlinked problems of hunger and poverty (FAO, 2009). The vast majority of the world’s hungry people live and work in rural areas, as do 76% of the 2.1 billion people living on less than $2 per day.
There are a number of factors that are now rapidly converging to aggravate the state of food insecurity, including population increases, changing consumption patterns, increasing incomes, growing demand for meat and dairy (especially grain-fed), growing demand for biofuels, scarcity of land and water, slowing of agricultural productivity and adverse impacts of climate change. The growing number of future food and livelihood security mega-challenges now includes:

  • Feeding and meeting the expanding resource demands of the human population, which will reach 9000 million people in 2050.
  • Strengthening the food and livelihood security of the ~ 1000 million people who suffer from food and livelihood insecurity.
  • Doubling food production by 2050 while using less energy, fertilisers and water. This can only be achieved through increased productivity (i.e. yield per hectare).
  • Meeting a doubling of demand for animal products (meat, dairy) between 2000 and 2030.
  • World primary energy demand increasing by 40% between 2007 and 2030 to 16800 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) (IEA, 2009).
  • Harnessing clean energy sources to meet increases in global energy demand (from ~13 terawatts demand today to 22 terawatts by 2025).
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from industry and agriculture to stay within the 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalent (to limit global temperature increase to 2oC).
  • “Climate-proofing” of farming systems (i.e. crops, animals) as a mitigation measure against predicted negative effects of climate change.
  • Improving the health and nutritional status of ~1000 million people who are malnourished and the other ~1000 million overweight people who are prone to chronic diseases associated with obesity.
  • Reducing the burden of disease on human and animal health (e.g. malaria, TB, food and mouth disease, swine fever).
  • Improving food safety to reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses (e.g. reducing effects of diarrhoeal diseases and food toxins).
  • Limiting agricultural expansion into environmentally fragile or biodiverse areas.
  • Developing sustainable bioenergy and renewable energy systems that do not negatively impact on the food and livelihood security of the poor.
  • Developing low-carbon energy-efficient models of economic and sustainable development that can increase agricultural yields, while strengthening food and livelihood security for the poor.

In this context, one of the greatest technical challenges is to accelerate the development and introduction of new suites of productivity-increasing bio-based technologies (for crops, animals, algae, fish, forestry and food), that are sustainable in the sense that they do not themselves inflict damage on the soil, water and ecological resources as well as on the atmospheric conditions on which future food output depends.