The dominant story about the future of the world food supply is logical, well known and wrong.
You’ve probably heard it many times. While the exact phrasing varies, it usually goes something like this: The world’s population will grow to 9 billion by mid-century, putting substantial demands on the planet’s food supply. To meet these growing demands, we will need to grow almost twice as much food by 2050 as we do today.
To be fair, there are grains of truth in each of these statements, but they are far from complete. And they give a distorted vision of the global food system, potentially leading to poor policy and investment choices.
To make better decisions, we need to examine where the narrative goes off the rails.
There are more than 7 billion people on Earth today, and we’re expected (if current demographic trends continue unabated) to reach 9 billion by mid-century. Two billion more people in the next 40 years — that’s roughly a 28 percent increase. If those additional 2 billion people were to eat the average diet (which is actually unlikely, since most of these people will be added to the poorest regions of the world, where diets are very minimal) that would mean we need roughly 28 percent more food. It’s just simple math.
What we really need to do is deliver more food and good nutrition to the world. And there is another way to deliver more food to the world besides simply growing more crops: Better use of the crops we already grow, making sure they create as much nutritious food as possible.
... the use of crops for animal feed (instead of for direct human consumption) can be extremely inefficient in feeding people. Furthermore, some key crops are increasingly being used for biofuels, at the expense of producing food.
... the typical Midwestern farm could theoretically provide enough calories to feed about 15 people daily from each hectare of farmland. But there’s a catch: People would need to eat the corn and soybeans these farms grow directly, as part of a plant-based diet, with little food waste.
... the actual Midwestern farm today provides only enough calories to feed roughly five people per day per hectare of farmland, mainly because the vast majority of the corn and soybeans are being used to make ethanol or to feed animals.
The new narrative might sound something like this: The world faces tremendous challenges to feeding a growing, richer world population — especially to doing so sustainably, without degrading our planet’s resources and the environment. To address these challenges, we will need to deliver more food to the world through a balanced mix of growing more food (while reducing the environmental impact of agricultural practices) and using the food we already have more effectively. Key strategies include reducing food waste, rethinking our diets and biofuel choices, curbing population growth, and growing more food at the base of the agricultural pyramid with low-tech agronomic innovations. Only through a balanced approach of supply-side and demand-side solutions can we address this difficult challenge.