Leon Terry is the director of agri food at Cranfield University

The debate on global food security tends to highlight the extremes in levels of awareness and attitudes.

On the one hand, the average consumer sees food supply in terms of slick supermarket operations, hiding any fragility in the international supply chains. And on the other, bleak predictions from futurologists on what population growth, climate change and new demands from a growing middle class will mean for a food system already under threat.

Lloyd’s of London, for example, has set out scenarios where extreme weather incidents – similar to those seen around the world in recent years – would result in shortages of staples, stock market disruption, food riots and agro-terrorism. The basic facts are sobering: the need to feed a population of more than nine billion by 2050; a land bank that is shrinking by an estimated 12 million hectares through soil degradation each year; soil that is becoming less responsive to inputs from fertilisers.

It’s important that governments and growers are aware of the specific issues, and at the same time, understand more about the new technologies that have the potential to bolster food production and its security.

Agri-informatics, for example. The increased sophistication of big data analysis, and falling costs of sensors and data collection approaches – like the use of drones – means we will have better information for precision farming and real-time crop management. There will be more opportunities for sharing data among farmers, as well as across food supply chains in order to be able to pre-empt and react to problems.

New technologies are being developed to prevent food waste – one of the most straightforward ‘wins’ to achieve global food supply. Pilot-scale studies are being carried out in collaboration with industry to develop a set of rapid sensor-based systems that are able to detect very early stages of fungal bacterial infection in fruits like cherries, plums and strawberries by using volatile biomarkers. This way, producers and retailers can identify which produce needs to be sold first, saving on an estimated loss of around 15 per cent from total crop production. Sustainable intensification of farming promotes the use of lesser inputs without compromising yield. This does mean that the soil system has to be stretched, and one option can be the use of agricultural residues and valorising it in order to minimise chemical inputs and restore soil health.

More controversially, there is the role of genetically modified crops. Scientific research has yet to find any examples of ‘harm’ to the environment or individuals resulting from GM. There are currently, for example, tested varieties of crops that rely on far lower quantities of water for growth, but which are being left in the labs because of the GM label. Public opinion may only be won over when there are specific food supply problems to be overcome.