2013-07-09

There Won't Be Enough Food To Feed The World In 2050

If we spread all the food on the planet out evenly, everyone would have enough to eat. Small comfort to the people without food now. But in less than 40 years, it’s going to be even worse.

It’s familiar refrain—one issued by institutions as reputable as the World Health Organization (WHO): there’s enough food to feed everyone in the world, but it’s just not evenly distributed.

That may be true. For now. But according to a study in the journal PLOS ONE, there won’t be enough food for everyone by 2050, no matter how we divvy it up.

In order to feed a world of 9.6 billion people (the projected population) 37 years down the line, farmers today would have to make significant changes, devoting less land to biofuels and dramatically boosting crop yields. In fact, crop yields are rising (at a rate of 1.6% and 1.3% per year for maize and soybean in an optimistic scenario), but it’s not enough.

Here are the researchers’ predictions, based on approximately 2.5 million agricultural statistics.

The solid lines are projections based on today’s yield per acre growth. The dashed lines show the 2% to 4% improvement in yield that would have to happen every year in order to meet rising demand—doubling crop production by 2050 without clearing extra land for food (forest destruction is a significant contributor to climate change).

Some parts of the world still have the opportunity to boost crop yields if they invest in agricultural technology. That’s not the case everywhere. The Washington Post explains:

But in some parts of the world, there’s a more worrisome prospect — farmers are doing everything they can to squeeze more productivity out of their farmland, but they’re starting to hit a biological “wall,” a limit on how much yields can keep rising.

“We can sometimes bust through these walls with technology, genetics, better seeds,” Foley says. Indeed, this is a place where people hope that genetically modified crops might be able to boost yields. “But at a certain point,” [Jonathan Foley, an agricultural expert at the University of Minnesota] says, “we run up against fundamental physiological limits for plants. If billion of years of evolution can’t figure it out, are we going to be able to? That I don’t know.”

Growers will probably resort to clear-cutting more forests, dealing a big blow to biodiversity and causing CO2 emissions to rise. But there is another path: humans can cut down on the embarrassingly large amount of food waste we produce, and we can slash meat consumption (plant-based diets require less arable land). If we’re lucky, the nascent fields of realistic meat replacements and in-vitro meat will grow large enough that they can handle some of the planet’s meat cravings .

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