2.4 billion extra people, no more land: how will we feed the world in 2050?
Steve Connor reveals how scientists propose a major policy shift to tackle one of the great challenges of the 21st century
The Independent, UK
Saturday, 22 January 2011
The finite resources of the Earth will be be stretched as never before in the coming 40 years because of the unprecedented challenge of feeding the world in 2050, leading scientists have concluded in a report to be published next week.
Food production will have to increase by between 70 and 100 per cent, while the area of land given over to agriculture will remain static, or even decrease as a result of land degradation and climate change. Meanwhile the global population is expected to rise from 6.8 billion at present to about 9.2 billion by mid-century.
The Government-appointed advisers are expected to warn that “business as usual” in terms of food production is not an option if mass famine is to be avoided, and to refer to the need for a second “green revolution”, following the one that helped to feed the extra 3 billion people who have been added to the global population over the past 50 years.
In the hard-hitting report, commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, the scientists will warn that the era of cheap food is over, and that governments around the world must prepare to follow the leads of China and Brazil by investing heavily in research and the development of new agricultural techniques and practices.
These numbers don’t make sense to me, the increase yields by 70-100%. Why?
Two reasons. First, we currently overproduce grains by a factor of something like 50-70%. Thus we take this surplus and create uses for it in order to clear markets and keep prices up–e.g., corn ethanol and animal feed. I am not saying we shouldn’t feed animals any grains, and certainly the monogastrics rely on it exclusively, but the number of animals is excessive, especially in OEDC nations.
Second, if we already produce plenty of food for ca. 9 billion people (looking at FAO numbers on global calories per capita and accepting that some food waste is inevitable) AND population productions are for an increase on the order of 40% (7 to 9+ billion), then why do we need 70-100%?
The answer, I believe, lies in models of economic development and higher meat consumption. But this is a demand problem, not a supply problem. I can hear the argument that “once people taste meat…” etc. and that markets are simply there to supply human desires. If so, this says more about the problem of the economic theory behind these pronouncements than anything real.
There are plenty of real issues with keeping food on plates. Most of the articles I see miss them or, in fairness, get only half the context.
This seems to me a very USA centric comment. The increase in poultry, hog, dairy and beef is coming largely from China. It'[s a decision the recently non-poor make, as shown in the original linked article.
The food we produce today may theoretically feed 9 billion, but in practice we have food insecurity today. Feeding 9 billion on current approaches is a theoretical proposal, not a practical one.
There is a simple reason why food production should grow faster than population. Prosperity. One of the benefits of prosperity is access to a more varied, plentiful diet. To increase food production merely at the same rate as population growth simply guarantees that the future will have the same proportion of malnutrition/starvation as we do today.
I for one do not view such a future as very appealing, and suspect that preferences for such is grounded in starkly non-humanitarian concerns.
I’ve traveled and worked on every continent and lived among some of the very poor, eating meals with them. While I may be US Centric (can’t help that) I also have some first hand experience with how some of the poorest live, and many were subsistence farmers.
What I am getting at is that about 1 billion people are currently malnourished in that they don’t get enough to eat. Another 1 billion are malnourished because they eat too much fat, carbs and sugar.
This is largely a problem of distribution. Distribution of population with respect to good soils, plenty of water, good governance, good roads, reliable electricity, working finance and regulatory systems, etc.
So what I am saying is that the limiting factors are very much local and have almost nothing to do with how much food is produced on a global basis. In fact, producing too much in one place and deciding we need to ship it somewhere else can hamper the ability of the importer to develop their own food security. Not that I don’t think trade can’t help with food security, especially in a crisis, but it may also undermine it too.
How much food today is produced but not eaten? Compare and contrast rich and poor countries.
Yes, distribution challenges are serious. But one needs to ask whether they will be made worse is supply difficulties are made more challenging if supply is barely adequate in the face of increased demand. Distribution depends on adequate and well situated supply. Both have to be considered.
Over production leads to prices crashes, which then leads to commodity dumping that undermines local markets and potentially puts local farmers out of business. Only ca. 10% of grains are traded globally, but they have a huge impact on local prices. Makes distribution issues worse.
Without ethanol, corn prices would be in the tank (that’s a pun!).
So we have to ask when populations increase by 2.4 billion and they eat richer diets, and productivity stays flat, will there be oversupply problems or over demand problems? The issues you raise relate to the world of the past where supply has kept up with demand, but we need to think through the scenarios where demand increases and supply does not match demand. What are the likely risks there: Over supply? I think not.
Those are good questions. I would concur with them.
My beef with the article is that it doesn’t accurately describe the present situation: We already produce way too much food, plenty today for the 9+ billion imagined future even with reasonable loss assumptions (i.e., I believe enough calories are grown for over 12 billion right now). Therefore, it is logically incoherent to say we will need to double food production.
However, should we consider the risk of an under supply of food? Of course we should. I just think many of the risks are misidentified and so the proposed responses are also not going to work.
We may overproduce food globally, but I don’t think looking globally is necessarily workable, or looking at what is actually needed as compared to what is demanded – doing either will, in my opinion, consign the poor and hungry to more of the same, or worse.
The West, and cultures which are rapidly westernizing, aren’t going to stop what they’re doing – they should, but they won’t. They overproduce, overconsume and will do so more rapidly in the future than they do now – if production isn’t increased then it is the poor and hungry who will pay – not the affluent and corpulent – without adequete local food production in developing nations, and without oversupply in developed nations the whole house of cards comes crashing down – developing nations will be exploited for the resources they have so that the west, and westernizing nations, can continue along the path they are on.
Expecting global food calories to be evenly distributed ignores food security issues – it may seem to make sense but I don’t personally see that there is any kind of security in telling a nation of millions to rely on foreign food production for basic survival – I can infact think of no better way for rich industrialized nations to hold the third world hostage – doubly so because with an influx of food from external sources what point is there in maintaining any sort of agricultural infrastructure (witness the destruction of Ag systems caused by well-meaning food aid) when you are provided from externally – all well and good right up to the point where your benefactors decide that actually we’ll be keeping our calories because we don’t like you so much any more (ie when the Republicans get elected – there’s a lot of people who wouldn’t be too happy that good old US calories are going to feed people with melanin overproduction)
Wow… somebody grab that soap box before he falls off. You really can rant when you get wound up. Several good points there. But at the very end you take a shot at one political sector by describing a group they’ve traditionally overlooked as people with “melanin overproduction”. My quible on this particular point is that perhaps the fair skinned among us are simply melanin challenged.
Clem – I’d be inclined to agree but to switch to that view doesn’t convey the superior vs inferior mindset I was ranting about.
Also – no need for anyone to grab the soapbox – I rant enough to have invested in a sturdily constructed version with safety rails and all manner of other contrivances (drink holder etc)
I feel that my statements align with yours very well.
Throwing numbers around for global food production needs is almost useless.
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