Palladium hosted a debate at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh on 29 October, which focused on the role of agricultural technology, agri-business, and governments in promoting food security.
The realisation that population growth and rising incomes mean the world needs to produce 50% more food by 2050 has become a critical issue, placed firmly at the top of the global agenda for political and business leaders. At a time of climate crisis, water shortages, and a lack of suitable arable land, it's a complex dilemma to solve: producing more but wasting less. Add to that problem evolving consumer preferences and increased health, food safety, and food security concerns, and the challenge can appear at first glance overwhelming.
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the government has taken steps to address these issues. Vision 2030 is focused on rationalising the use of finite resources and increasing efficiency through production and value chains. The development of rural economies is a top priority. The farming sector is rightly seen as an important source of income and employment, as well as helping resolve issues of food security in an increasingly uncertain world.
In today's integrated global food network, what often gets lost is the perspective of the farmers and rural producers who are often some of the world's poorest people. Technological advances developed in sophisticated laboratories have their place, but traditional forms of agriculture are set to produce the bulk of our food for the foreseeable future.
New technologies have the potential to improve profitability and incomes for farmers, who have been squeezed for generations by a global system, which means that only a small fraction of the price paid by consumers ends up in their pockets. But these technologies typically require upfront initial investment and come with considerable costs to implement.
Urban consumer trends for sustainable and organic, traceable food are to be welcomed, but little thought or attention is paid to how this works for farmers who have the ultimate responsibility to care for the precious ecosystem on which humanity depends for our survival. The costs of meeting these higher standards fall on small-scale producers far more than on large food processors and manufacturers who are more able to shoulder the burden.
Only a small percentage of the "green premium" global consumers are prepared to pay reaches the farmer. This means that many individual farmers, from South America to Southeast Asia, who do not benefit from this increased global emphasis and awareness of sustainability, have no choice but to continue to burn down precious rainforests to ensure their economic survival.
The sophisticated, well-established global agri-businesses in the developed world are best able to adopt and finance cutting edge technologies. But we need a large-scale change, which even such agri-businesses need support to implement; they require subsidies from governments to bring about meaningful change. New techniques also require a highly skilled workforce. Rural communities need help to acquire the necessary technical knowledge to flourish in this food and agriculture ecosystem. They need the data to be able to understand complex supply chains to make informed decisions.
Technology is part of the answer to meet the growing demand for more food. But food and agriculture systems will only succeed by placing people, and not just technology, at the centre. The challenge is to structure inclusive systems which combine the interests of consumers, producers, and intermediaries.
We need to foster long-term relationships to incentivise investment and the development of new products and practices. A critical part of that process is ensuring that individual farmers and small rural producers are empowered to feel they share in that long-term opportunity. Improving quality, reliability, food safety, and raising standards through the widespread adoption of Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) in Saudi Arabia is to be warmly welcomed as an important step to making that vision a reality.