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Overview: Agriculture and food

The global population is around 7 billion and growing. In 2015, some 800 million people did not get enough calories to reach their minimum dietary intake, while other parts of the world have seen unprecedented levels of consumption. The factors behind this are undeniably complex, but science has a crucial part to play in alleviating malnutrition and managing the implications for our finite planet.

Find out about the Society’s work examining global population and consumption, food crop production and the genetic modification (GM) of food crops.

The science of agriculture and food is of vital importance as populations grow and place increasing stresses on water and other resources.

Following the ‘Green Revolution’, which saw the application of science to food production, gross world food production grew from 1.84 billion tonnes in 1961 to 4.38 billion tonnes in 2007.

Now, science is producing new techniques and technologies that can contribute once again to help feed the world and mitigate the impact of rising global population and consumption.

Global population and consumption

The number of people living on the planet has never been higher and their levels of consumption are unprecedented. Total consumption will continue to increase as the population gets larger, as more people on the planet means more mouths to feed.

Addressing these controversial topics, our report People and the planet raises questions about how best to seize the opportunities that changes in population could bring – and how to avoid the most harmful impacts.

Our experts determined that consumption levels between developed and developing nations must be rebalanced alongside a stabilisation of the world’s population by voluntary methods.

The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise consumption levels, then reduce them, to help the poorest 1.3 billion people to escape absolute poverty through increased consumption.

Sustainable intensification

Food production will have to increase by at least 50% to meet future needs and this will need to be done largely on existing agricultural land.

Our experts closely examined the merits of different approaches to increasing food yields in our report Reaping the benefits. They concluded that although there is no technological panacea for the global challenge of sustainable and secure global food production, there are scientific solutions which could mitigate potential food shortages.

Diverse approaches are needed. Due to the scale of the challenge, no technology should be ruled out, and different strategies may need to be employed in different regions and circumstances.

Genetic modification of food crops

As discussed in Reaping the Benefits, food security is one of this century's key global challenges, and due to the scale of the challenge, no technology should be ruled out. Genetic modification (GM) is one of the approaches which could help to address the challenge.

In the United Kingdom half of the population do not feel well informed about genetically modified crops (GM crops) and a further 6% have never heard of them, so we created a question and answer resource for those who are interested in what GM is, how it is used and potential future uses.

We commissioned Ipsos MORI to find out what people want to know about GM plants, and then drew on a panel of expert, independent scientists to answer those questions. We recognise that our answers will not end the controversy, but we hope that they will inform people about the science and allow those who might previously have felt excluded from the discussion to form a view.

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