In this guide, we look at how the world’s demand for food might change in the future, and how we might be able to better ensure a wider range of the world’s people get enough food to eat via various ideas and solutions.
Summary – The Challenges We Are Facing With Feeding The World’s Population In The Future, & Potential Solutions
- The world’s population is expected the grow to 9 to 10 billion by 2050, and 10 to 13 billion by 2100
- People say that to meet global food demand – we just need to double production – but this doesn’t seem like the simple one step answer because there are inefficiencies and problems with distribution and sustainability of the food in the current food system already.
- We already produce enough food to feed 1.5x the world population, but many people in poorer countries still go hungry, and there is massive waste and unsustainable agricultural and food practices in wealthy countries (wealthy countries are actually where 2/3 of future food demand is going to come from despite an existing excess and waste)
- To meet future global food demand – it will take a multi layered approach, and the approach will be different depending on the country or state/province in question
- The challenges and solutions are very different in developed vs developing countries
- In developed countries – reducing food waste at the consumer level, changing to more resource sustainable diets (and not simply directing a higher disposable income and wealth to resource inefficient foods), making use of new cutting edge food technology and agricultural practices, and sustainable use of resources are where focus should be placed
- In developing countries – reducing food loss at the production level via cold storage, refrigeration and food transport equipment, investing in technology, more resources and bigger plots of land for farmers, and lifting consumers (especially those in rural areas) out of poverty with economic stimulation with social welfare/protection support, and provision of jobs are all important in increasing food supply, ensuring it gets to consumers, and ensuring consumers have enough disposable income to buy the food they need. Pro poverty investment and support is crucial.
- There are other general strategies and factors to consider which we’ve listed below
- (Something that is not often mentioned in regards to agriculture is the degradation of arable land, and the erosion rates of fertile topsoil worldwide. Not only do we have to address soil erosion and land degradation, but we have to look at better soil conservation measures such as sustainable farming practices that improve soil health. Apart from sustainable farming practices, GMO seeds, lab grown food, and government/private sector funded mass restoration of degraded land are options to increase food supply).
- (Changing weather patterns and global as well as regional climate patterns, along with severe weather events like droughts will impact agriculture into the future)
How To Feed The World’s Population In The Future – Factors, Strategies and Solutions
There’s two factors that contribute to feeding everyone in the world:
- producing the total amount of food required to feed the population
- ensuring that that the produced food gets to everyone in the world who needs it
Below are some general factors, strategies and solutions for meeting future global food demand:
- The world’s population is expected to increase to between 9 to 10 billion in 2050, and 10 to 13 billion by 2100. We already produce enough food globally to feed 10 billion people, and the world’s population is only 7.7 billion right now. So, doubling food production is not the answer worldwide to meet future food demand if there are people in the world already not getting fed right now (about 830 million in 2019, and that number is expected to increase another 2 billion in the future by 2050). The solutions to making sure everyone gets fed differ between developing and developed countries, because they each face different challenges regarding food production and consumption
- In the past – to increase food production – we’ve expanded global croplands, increased harvested land, and increased crop yields. But, we can’t keep doing this because crop yields are declining for prominent crops in parts of the world (due to heat stress, high night temperatures, depleted soils, erosion, and disease), and we are edging up on using nearly all of the land that’s suitable for agriculture already (environmentreports.com). Expanding and intensifying agriculutre and food production can only take us so far.
- Answers for meeting future food demand will have to lie elsewhere…
- Part of the answer might lie in find out what each locality and country does well in terms of food production, and boosting and strengthening local food economies and agriculture, as opposed to relying on a global food system. A global food system currently means uneven distribution of food (over 800 million people who are hungry in the world as of 2019 … most of whom are in developing countries). Local food economies are less susceptible to global food problems and inefficiencies if they have diversified crops and sustainable growing practices. In the event of a local disruption to food supply like a flood or drought, food can be imported from other states and countries for that length of time. It’s about achieving that balance.
- We might look at the balance of organic vs conventional farming. We should look at all the pros and cons of each, but specifically which one really yields better in different geographic locations, and which one is sustainable long term. Getting that balance right is important. Much less money is invested into organic farming technology and research at the moment, which is something that may need to be re-visited (you can read more about them at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/world-hunger_n_1463429)
- In wealthy countries or places with higher disposable income, there is a rising demand for meat, dairy, eggs and high calorie diets in wealthy regions. The problem with this type of diet is that it looks unsustainable long term – mainly because of how inefficient it is in converting energy and resources into food – growing feed to give to animals doesn’t make sense when people go hungry. Plant based diets look far more sustainable long term and can feed far more people when considering conversion rates. We may have to change our diets in the future to meet future food demand and feed everyone – whether that means we eat less animal based foods, or cutting it out altogether in some cases. Lab grown meat is also an option. In changing diets or foods we grow – we also need to keep in mind nutrition – protein, vitamin A, iron and zinc, calories, carbohydrates, fats etc. Food produced and eaten still needs to be healthy, nutritious and cater to people with specific dietary requirements
- Agriculture relies on water for irrigation. Water as a resource is being depleted and becoming scarce in many places – the sustainable use of water is important for the future of agriculture and food production
- Agriculture relies on the availability of grazing and arable/fertile land for livestock and also crops. There’s only so much fertile land available in the world – which becomes a limiting factor to food production. Land erosion and soil depletion are also concerns
- Agriculture can have a huge environmental impact – from greenhouse gas emissions, to the chemicals released into soil and water sources from pesticides and fertilizers. We must assess the impact of increasing food production in the future if the impact on the environment is only getting worse.
- Consider the benefits of farming more non commercial polycultures over the alternative which is commercial monocultures (which may not be as sustainable long term, and which can also rely on agrochemicals)
- Look into modernising agricultural methods, by finding ways to increase yields, and increase food availability. Increasing yields may come as a result of improved seed varieties, rebuilding degraded soils, and pest and weed control. Key areas where production could be increased, bringing yields closer to their potential, include wheat in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, rice in South Asia, and maize in East Asia. In sub-Saharan Africa, yields of cassava, maize, and sugarcane could also be greatly improved (environmentreports.com). Organic agricultural practices may also be an option
- Look into diversifying crop fields (biodiversity) by looking at how we can grow a wider selection of foods than some of the ones that dominate the world at the moment (and are facing declining yield rates)
- It can’t be ignored that farmers are business owners – and profit and risk are important considerations for them. If society has different requirements of how they want farmers to farm (i.e. farm more sustainably – but this is going to result in lesser profits and more risks), it needs to be considered how much farmers are subsidised and financially supported by the government as they are so important to food supply for the population.
- Specifically with agriculture assessment – it needs to get more detailed by food type and measurement metric. For example yield is different when comparing tons per acre, compared to tons per input of water or energy, compared to yield per unit of calories, protein and other nutritional units. Picking the best agricultural practices going forward includes picking your priorities, and picking practices that meet those priorities.
- … of all perishable food produced in the world today, only 10% is refrigerated. There is a huge opportunity to cut food waste and improve food distribution by implementing cold chain technology … [to do this effectively] we need to understand local needs …the first challenge to developing an adequate cold chain in countries like India is the cost of refrigerated trucks [and other refrigerated tech like refrigerated warehouses] – the equipment needs to be affordable. The second challenge is finding resources to pay for that equipment. That’s where businesses can make a difference … (theguardian.com)
- [We might look to reduce food waste at the producer level in developing countries, and at the consumer level in developed countries] …Reducing food waste has many benefits – [it’s a] “triple-win” for the cold chain: [it can lead to] an increase in the shelf life of food (from one week to 2 months), a boost in profit of up to 23% for everyone in the supply chain, and a substantial reduction in post-harvest food loss of 76%. What’s more, greenhouse gas emissions [can be] reduced by 16%. (theguardian.com). A reasonable goal to aim for is to halve all food waste … about a third of food waste consists of truly inedible food, but the rest could have been eaten.
- Look at ways to safeguard crops and agriculture against the impact of climate change or changing weather patterns (rainfall, heat, changing growing seasons). This may involve look at GMO crop seeds engineered for drought resistance for example, or soil with better moisture retention. Yields of crops are expected to be impacted by climate change in some regions – For example, corn yields are expected to be decreased in the US Midwest regions, and countries and regions like Brazil and Indonesia
- Just four crops—maize, rice, wheat, and soybeans—provide two-thirds of the calories we harvest from fields. In many parts of the world, the yields for these crops are not rising. We may look at either researching ways to increase yields, or diversify our available crops for long term and sustainable agricultural practices.
- … much of the crops currently being grown are not destined for people (only 59% of calories that we grow do we actually consume – environmentreports.com). The more developed a country’s agricultural system, the more crops tend to be used to feed animals or make biofuel (U.S. croplands produce a lot of calories, but an astounding two-thirds of calories are used to feed animals. If these calories were instead directed toward humans, the U.S. could feed nearly three times as many people as it currently does). We may look at switching to diets that are more centred around plants and crops grown for humans first, or vehicles that are electric or even hydrogen powered (instead of run by biofuels) – so we can stop using land, water, and other resources for agriculture that are not 100% necessary or are poor at resource conversion. Regarding feed grown for livestock – about 14 percent of global livestock feed (measured in carbon mass) is from pasture totally unsuitable for growing crops – so there is a lot of potential there to use land more efficiently for human food (environmentreports.com)
How To Feed Populations In Developing Countries
- The problems in developing countries stem from poverty, instability (of society and the economy), and a lack of food protection and transport technology to get the food from farms to consumers in supermarkets and their homes
- So, overall poverty needs to be addressed in the poorest countries
- This can be partly be done by investing in resources and technology for farmers – who currently farm with basic equipment on small plots of land (and it leads to lesser yields and production than they could perhaps otherwise achieve). Also, look at potential for how farmers can work bigger plots of land
- Invest in food transport and storage technology and equipment to prevent food loss – infrastructure and systems in the supply chain that reduces the mass or nutritional value of food, such as lack of refrigeration and storage, logistics, insufficient training, or poor access to markets. Food should be protected from farm to supermarket, and be kept fresh until the consumer buys it to prevent food waste. Cold storage systems and food refrigeration are such examples – this has big potential to decrease food loss at the farming, and the handling and storage stage. environmentreports.com has a good diagram that shows food loss and waste at the different stages, and compares developed vs developing regions and the differences between them
- Address unemployment, underemployment and lack of social welfare/social protection for the poorest people in the world who can’t afford food from their leftover disposable incomes. Job growth and social protection is needed to stimulate growth and bring money in. Governments from developing countries and external country governments can help provide this stimulation and growth. This will give them more disposable income to buy food. The world can afford the needed investment … it would cost the equivalent of 0.3% of the world’s 2014 income. Wealthier countries would need to provide budgetary support and technical assistance to the low-income countries that need it. (Most middle-income countries can afford the needed financing themselves.) (weforum.org). So, pro poor and pro poverty investment is needed.
- Specifically look at helping lift out of poverty people living in rural areas …almost four-fifths of the world’s poor live in rural areas, though those areas account for less than half of the world’s population. The obvious conclusion is that raising rural incomes sustainably is required to eradicate hunger.
How To Feed Populations In Developed Countries
- Issues here stem from diets that are too resource rich, food waste, and unsustainable farming practices long term (for society, the economy, and the environment)
- Two thirds of future food demand is going to come from wealthy people with high disposable incomes for animal based foods and high calorie foods
- Food waste needs to be reduced at the consumer level – food waste is essentially wasted resources used to make that food as well. Food waste happens via behavior and conditions in our homes, institutions, restaurants, and grocery stores that cause edible food to be discarded or to spoil. As a comparison – developed countries waste about 711 calories of food at the consumer level compared to about 26 wasted calories at the consumer level for developing countries (environmentreports.com)
- Consider changing diets to a more plant based diet which is more efficient at energy and resource conversion, and can feed more people with the same amount of land. Animal based high calorie diets (meat, dairy, eggs etc.) are poor at energy conversion (feeding crops to animals and then to humans), and use a lot more resources, as well as having a more damaging effects on the environment, water sources and humans
- Consider the pros and cons of GMO crops, and new technology like lab grown meats which can ease concerns on resource usage
- Consider how much agrochemicals are used in the future – fertilizer and pesticide both have environmental impacts
- Look at the sustainable use and management of water (via irrigation) and land/soil as resources in agriculture going forward
- Put an emphasis on the overall sustainable use of resources for agriculture, and implement sustainable farming practices
Where The Calories From Different Countries’ Crops Go
- The US and Brazil send a lot of their crop calories to animal feed
- India and Europe are quite good at sending crop calories to feed people first (before animals and before making biofuels)
- China could do better with sending their crop calories to people (although the total number of people they have to feed is obviously significant because of population density)