2050 Food Crisis

Illustration: Franz Lang

Illustration: Franz Lang

By 2050, with the global population expected to reach 9.8 billion, our food supplies will be under far greater stress. Demand will be 60% higher than it is today, but climate change, urbanization, and soil degradation will have shrunk the availability of arable land, according to the World Economic Forum. Add water shortages, pollution, and worsening inequality into the mix and the implications are stark.

When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.

How can the world double the availability of food while simultaneously cutting the environmental harm caused by agriculture? Looking at the data on agriculture and environment, there are five steps that could solve the world’s food dilemma.

Step 1: Freeze Agriculture’s Footprint

For most of history, whenever we’ve needed to produce more food, we’ve simply cut down forests or plowed grasslands to make more farms. We’ve already cleared an area roughly the size of South America to grow crops. To raise livestock, we’ve taken over even more land, an area roughly the size of Africa. Agriculture’s footprint has caused the loss of whole ecosystems around the globe, including the prairies of North America and the Atlantic forest of Brazil, and tropical forests continue to be cleared at alarming rates. But we can no longer afford to increase food production through agricultural expansion. Trading tropical forest for farmland is one of the most destructive things we do to the environment, and it is rarely done to benefit the 850 million people in the world who are still hungry. Most of the land cleared for agriculture in the tropics does not contribute much to the world’s food security but is instead used to produce cattle, soybeans for livestock, timber, and palm oil. Avoiding further deforestation must be a top priority.

Step 2: Grow More on Farms We’ve Got

Starting in the 1960s, the green revolution increased yields in Asia and Latin America using better crop varieties and more fertilizer, irrigation, and machines—but with major environmental costs. The world can now turn its attention to increasing yields on less productive farmlands—especially in Africa, Latin America, and eastern Europe—where there are “yield gaps” between current production levels and those possible with improved farming practices. Using high-tech, precision farming systems, as well as approaches borrowed from organic farming, we could boost yields in these places several times over.

Step 3: Use Resources More Efficiently

We already have ways to achieve high yields while also dramatically reducing the environmental impacts of conventional farming. The green revolution relied on the intensive—and unsustainable—use of water and fossil-fuel-based chemicals. But commercial farming has started to make huge strides, finding innovative ways to better target the application of fertilizers and pesticides by using computerized tractors equipped with advanced sensors and GPS. Many growers apply customized blends of fertilizer tailored to their exact soil conditions, which helps minimize the runoff of chemicals into nearby waterways.

Organic farming can also greatly reduce the use of water and chemicals—by incorporating cover crops, mulches, and compost to improve soil quality, conserve water, and build up nutrients. Many farmers have also gotten smarter about water, replacing inefficient irrigation systems with more precise methods, like subsurface drip irrigation. Advances in both conventional and organic farming can give us more “crop per drop” from our water and nutrients.

Step 4: Shift Diets

It would be far easier to feed nine billion people by 2050 if more of the crops we grew ended up in human stomachs. Today only 55 percent of the world’s crop calories feed people directly; the rest are fed to livestock (about 36 percent) or turned into biofuels and industrial products (roughly 9 percent). Though many of us consume meat, dairy, and eggs from animals raised on feedlots, only a fraction of the calories in feed given to livestock make their way into the meat and milk that we consume. For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or 3 of beef. Finding more efficient ways to grow meat and shifting to less meat-intensive diets—even just switching from grain-fed beef to meats like chicken, pork, or pasture-raised beef—could free up substantial amounts of food across the world. Because people in developing countries are unlikely to eat less meat in the near future, given their newfound prosperity, we can first focus on countries that already have meat-rich diets. Curtailing the use of food crops for biofuels could also go a long way toward enhancing food availability.

Step 5: Reduce Waste

An estimated 25 percent of the world’s food calories and up to 50 percent of total food weight are lost or wasted before they can be consumed. In rich countries most of that waste occurs in homes, restaurants, or supermarkets. In poor countries food is often lost between the farmer and the market, due to unreliable storage and transportation. Consumers in the developed world could reduce waste by taking such simple steps as serving smaller portions, eating leftovers, and encouraging cafeterias, restaurants, and supermarkets to develop waste-reducing measures. Of all of the options for boosting food availability, tackling waste would be one of the most effective.

These five steps could more than double the world’s food supplies and dramatically cut the environmental impact of agriculture worldwide. But it won’t be easy. These solutions require a big shift in thinking. For most of our history we have been blinded by the overzealous imperative of more, more, more in agriculture—clearing more land, growing more crops, using more resources. We need to find a balance between producing more food and sustaining the planet for future generations.

Illustration: Franz Lang website
Sources: National Geographic link - Time link