In the UK the Office for National Statistics collects data on many subjects, one of which is an annual survey of materials flow that it has been collecting since 1970.
It appears that the country’s use of a variety of materials has dropped back to its second lowest level since records began and that this decline has been happening since well before the onset of the global economic crisis in 2007-08.
Two particularly interesting trends emerge from the latest data. The first is that since 2003 both the amount of household waste (including recycling) generated by each person in the country and their intake of food, particularly meat, have been declining.
The second is that the quantities of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilisers being applied to British fields have been falling since the 1980s despite the intensification of food production. In the same week the UK’s online periodical for farmers, Farmers Weekly, carried an article about one arable farm’s switch in 2002 to using green waste compost to improve the condition and structure of its soil.
As a result the soil’s organic and earthworm content has improved considerably and its surface drainage has improved, but also the farm has found that it has reduced nitrogen fertiliser applications by as much as half on some fields, without loss of yield.
While the consumer trend showing reduced waste is encouraging in environmental terms, it has to be offset against population growth both nationally and globally, not to mention increased and changing consumption patterns in emerging economies like India, China and Brazil, all of which have a growing middle class with disposable income to spend.
The pressure on farmers to continue to produce more food is therefore not going to go away any time soon.
However, the finding that consumers are eating less, and particularly less meat, and that farmers’ use of chemically-produced nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilisers has been declining since the 1980s suggests that consumer pressure for healthier, chemical free and more natural food, may be having some effect.
Sustainable farming, organic farming methods and reducing both food waste and crop waste due to plant pests and diseases have long been important issues for those concerned about both the environment and global warming and about preserving the quality of the land on which food is produced.
As a result farmers have been demonstrating their willingness to experiment and try out or revive what were once seen as old-fashioned and traditional techniques. However, issues of food security and global population growth suggest that there is also a need for additional safe and innovative tools to be available to farmers.
Research investment is crucial and the efforts of scientists like the biopesticides developers need ongoing investment support. Their research into low-chemical agricultural products to replace the older generation of chemical-based pesticides and fertilisers has been encouraging.
Biopesticides, biofungicides and other natural yield enhancers are likely to become increasingly important to provide farmers with the tools they will need to produce enough healthy food for the increasing numbers of people on the planet.