How Will the World Feed Itself in 2050?

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What will the world look like in 2050? Well, for starters, the world population is expected to surpass 9 billion people — it should reach 9.1 billion, according to a report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). According to the Worldometer world population counter, the population as of the time of writing is around 7.266 billion, and it is rising as you read this. In addition to the increase in the amount of people on Earth, more people will live in urban areas, as this is where most of the population growth will occur. Incomes will increase dramatically, and overall, we as a human race will need more of a food supply to feed all of our members.

Population growth and change

Population growth is a primary reason why we’ll need more of a food supply down the road. To feed everyone, the FAO predicts that food production must increase by 70 percent, annual cereal production will need to rise from 2.1 to 3 billion tons, and annual meat production will need to rise by over 200 million tons. Can this be achieved?

We’re dealing with a few billion more people in the next 35 or 40 years. But when you take a second to think about it, population growth is by no means a new problem. “The world population growth rate rose from about 1.5 percent per year from 1950-51 to a peak of over 2 percent in the early 1960s due to reductions in mortality. Growth rates thereafter started to decline due to rising age at marriage as well as increasing availability and use of effective contraceptive methods,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

During the later half of the 20th century, the population doubled over a 30-year time frame. Fortunately for us, though, agricultural production was able to outpace population growth. In the early 1960s, global food supplies for human consumption yielded 2,300 calories per person per day, according to the FAO. “By 1994, global food supplies for human consumption had climbed to 2,710 Calories per person per day.” Considering we have been able to successfully address population growth concerns in the past, it is reasonable to believe we should be able to take this challenge on again in the future.

Will history repeat itself?

With 70 percent the world population expected to be urban in 2050, this changes the stage a bit. Lifestyles and typical day-to-day activities are often different for those in urban areas, than they are in rural areas, and consumption patterns reflect a faster-paced lifestyle. The demand for ready-to-eat or semi-processed foods may increase as a result. In rural areas, the population will not be as booming as it is in urban areas, but it will still see growth rates. Agricultural employment needs will not match such growth.

Seventy-five percent of the poor in developing countries live in rural areas, and their incomes are linked (directly or indirectly) to agriculture. Social services, like food assistance and health assistance, will be essential in combating hunger.

Developing countries are also going to continue to, well, develop. In spite of projected average GDP growth of 2.9% between 2005 and 2050, higher-income countries are expected to see 1.6% rates, while developing countries should see rates of 5.2%.

“As a result, the relative income gap (ratio of per capita GDP) between the two country groups will be narrowing, although absolute differences would remain pronounced and even increase further, given the current very large gap in absolute per capita incomes. Moreover, inter-country and interregional inequalities within the present-day developing world would tend to become more pronounced,” per the FAO.

Resources

Scarce resources have always been a concern, and they will continue to be a concern in 2050, especially as our population grows and changes. We do have a great deal of arable land that could theoretically be used for farming. However, much of this land is not cultivated, and some of it houses ecosystems that are important to the Earth, as well. A great deal of this land is also located in areas like Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, where the necessary infrastructure is not entirely accessible. Fresh water is also spread out over the globe. Water scarcity is a problem in some areas of the world but globally, water is available.

Not only will we have to increase the amount of arable land, we will also have to increase crop yields through new technologies and research and development in agriculture. Between 1960 and 2000, the rate of growth in yields of some of the major crops has been on the decline — this is something we need to reverse, as we will need this rate to grow to an ideal level. Increasing support systems is key.

Food-based fuel policies will need to be reevaluated, as spreading such an already-scarce resource too thin can become problematic. In addition to concerns regarding biofuels, changing climates and harsh weather also pose threats to future food security.

“Studies estimate that the aggregate negative impact of climate change on African agricultural output up to 2080-2100 could be between 15 and 30 percent. Agriculture will have to adapt to climate change, but it can also help mitigate the effects of climate change, and useful synergies exist between adaptation and mitigation,” says the FAO.

In addition, a little variation in the limited human diet could help, as we have become so accustomed to eating the same things. “A dozen species of animals provide 90 percent of the animal protein consumed globally and just four crop species provide half of plant-based calories in the human diet,” says the FAO. Perhaps leaning towards “bizarre foods” may not be a bad idea.

In 2050

Future food security is plausible, but it will not occur automatically — several actions need to be taken to ensure such security. These actions may include developing fair and competitive global trade systems, creating and increasing support systems for developing agriculture, and advancing R&D and agricultural technologies.

The FAO said: “The world has the resources and technology to eradicate hunger and ensure long-term food security for all, in spite of many challenges and risks. It needs to mobilize political will and build the necessary institutions to ensure that key decisions on investment and policies to eradicate hunger are taken and implemented effectively. The time to act is now.”

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