Nothing is guaranteed except change. Or so the saying goes. We could well argue that we live in a world that is changing faster than ever before, while some believe that we have in fact reached the fourth industrial revolution (Moavenzadeh, 2015).

Starting at the end of the 18th century, the first industrial revolution brought us the introduction of mechanical production facilities powered by water and steam. The second was experienced in the 20th century through mass production, based on the division of labour and electrical energy. In the 1970s, the introduction of electronics and IT led to automatised production processes which led to the third. The fourth is based on cyber-physical production systems that integrate computation, networking and physical processes. Besides the changes witnessed in the industrial sector, there are some changes that are predicted to influence agriculture in the future.

Growth, urbanisation and aging

Predictions are that, in the coming decade, the dynamics of the world’s population will change drastically. Projected growth is expected to be concentrated in Africa and South Asia as well as in the world’s cities. More people now live in cities than rural areas and two-thirds of the global population is expected to live in urban areas by the middle of the century.

The world population as a whole is growing older. South Asia’s growth in population is predicted to last until mid-century while sub-Saharan Africa will show growth until the end of the century. Predictions show a world population of eleven billion by 2100 – with nine billion of this number living in Asia and Africa.

More food, more feed, more fuel

To meet the demand, agriculture, in a global sense, will have to produce 50% more food, feed and biofuel by 2050 than it did in 2012. According to the report, the greatest challenge is upon sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where an increase in production of roughly 112% is expected while the rest of the world would have to increase production by just more than 34%.

On a positive note, meeting these demands is an achievable challenge if past performances are any indication. Agricultural production more than tripled between 1960 and 2015, with part of this increase ascribed to productivity enhancing green revolution technologies and expansion in the use of natural resources, such as land and water. In future, rapid technological development and innovations may offer a solution to these requirements.

An astonishing process of industrialisation and globalisation of the food and agriculture market has occurred. Everywhere, except the outermost rural areas, there has been an increase in the distance between the farm to the plate, food supply chains have lengthened and we are seeing an increase in the consumption of processed, packaged and prepared food.

This expansion in food production and economic growth comes at a high price: Almost half of the earth’s forests have been cut down, groundwater sources have been depleted and our biodiversity has been eroded. Still, even with this expansion of productivity, hunger and malnutrition remains a reality in various parts of the world. The current rate of progress will not be enough to eradicate hunger by 2050.

Innovation and trade

The use of mobile technology for information and communication is increasingly playing a more important role in keeping farmers informed with regard to weather conditions, availability of inputs, connections with buyers and market prices. Current mobile phone subscribers represent almost 60% of people in low-income countries, with more than 90% of the additional users to be reached by 2020 belonging to low- and middle-income countries.

On a personal note, one gets the feeling that large amounts of information are made available to farmers through websites or applications and some seem to be overwhelmed. There should at least be some emphasis on assisting farmers in interpreting the correct data for their specific situation.

The international trade of agricultural products has accelerated since the start of the new millennium. A reduction in trade was noticed during the financial crisis, with somewhat of a recovery and slower growth experienced since the crisis.

Trade trends are mainly associated with business cycles. Despite the relative fast growth in the trade of agricultural products, the majority of the food consumed in countries is produced locally. South Africa, as many other African countries as well as South Asia, is a net importer of food. Our consumed food imports are placed in the 0-20% category. Net exporting countries such as Argentina, Australia and the United States export more than 50% of their domestic food supply.

Pests and diseases

Pests and diseases have always been with us. Food security, though, is threatened by an alarming increase in the number of outbreaks of transboundary pests and diseases. On the local front, we had the fall army worm outbreak in 2016 and recent outbreaks of avian influenza (bird flu).

Transboundary animal diseases are causing high mortality and illness rates in animals. This continues to disrupt international and regional livestock markets and trade, posing a constant threat to the livelihoods of livestock farmers around the globe. A contributing factor is poorly regulated movements that have led to the spread of animal diseases, such as lumpy skin disease and foot-and-mouth disease.

Currently the international community lacks the capacity and coordination to prevent, control and eradicate emerging transboundary animal diseases. The report also emphasises that, in future, the successful controlling of transboundary pests and diseases will reduce yield losses in crops and pastures and boost productivity.

Besides affecting food security, these issues also have economic, social and environmental impacts. The report states that the upsurge in zoonotic diseases, such as avian influenza, could have serious repercussions on human health and is worrisome.

Food losses and waste

On the one side of the value chain is an expected increase in future production, while on the other side losses (consumption) should also be reduced. Approximately one third of all food produced is lost or wasted in the food chain between production and consumption. The loss of food is seen as an accidental occurrence due to inadequate technology or lack of knowledge and skills. Food wastage is characterised by an element of intended or unintended behaviour, such as the removal of food by choice.

Food waste is mostly associated with final consumption, but the deliberate discharge of food can occur at all stages of the supply chain. Annually 1,3 billion tons of edible food originally intended for human consumption, is lost or wasted.

In low-income countries, significant levels of food losses occur upstream during harvest and post-harvest handling due to a lack of production investment. In sub-Saharan Africa, data shows that just more than 35% of produced food intended for human consumption is lost or wasted along the supply chain. The largest losses in these countries occur during harvesting (12,5%) and post-harvest handling (12,7%). In comparison, European countries show greater efficiency in the earlier stages of the value chain and the greatest losses in the final stage (consumption – 12,6%).

Reducing food losses is a balancing act in some sense, and may require greater use of energy to preserve food products. How this energy is produced and delivered to the different points along the value chain will have an impact on the environment and local economy.

The reduction of food waste is not solved by technology, although technology can provide some relief – but it isn’t a lasting solution. Change is required in respect of consumer behaviour. Policies need to create conditions that will enable individuals along the food supply chain, to achieve socially optimal levels of food losses and wastage.

A last word

From an agricultural perspective, we can expect to see an increase in the use of labour saving technologies and practices with large focus placed on intensive production systems. These trends will be assisted by the rate of urbanisation, minimum wage requirements and the skill level of the labour force.

The aspect of resource conservation and sustainable farming practices will keep on receiving attention. Aquaponics and hydroponic farms may soon be the buzzword in South African agriculture and producers will require training and financial assistance to access these possibilities.

The world has become a ‘global village’ and markets can be accessed easily. We may see that producers, especially livestock producers, will move away from these easy trading practices by isolating their farms which will allow them to be better protected against risks, such as diseases, in the near future. One could also argue for better protection of our local producers, such as the poultry industry, against world markets. – WA Lombard, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of the Free State

For more information, email WA Lombard at


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