Let’s talk about the number 2050 – the year. What do you think life will be like on earth in the year 2050? Maybe most of you respond with optimism about advances in healthcare and electronics that make our lives easier. Maybe scientists finally figured out a way to make those hover cars and jet packs available in everyday life. Maybe you think we will all be subject to the machines at that point. Maybe there will be a zombie apocalypse.
For scientists, we have a different view, but not necessarily any less scary than some of the examples mentioned above. Why worry about 2050? In 2050, the world’s population is projected to reach 9 billion people. This projected milestone has scientists from many fields anxious due to the interrelated consequences that number means for agricultural production, energy demand, climate change and human health. Below are the numbers we’ve been crunching.
Current global agriculture production provides about 2700 calories per person per day. This is more than enough to meet the nutritional needs of everyone on earth. If only it were that simple. Despite this caloric surplus, more than 850 million people (15% of the world’s population) are undernourished. Another 2 billion people have adverse effects from micronutrient deficiencies. A myriad of factors contribute to this problem, but agricultural production is not one of them. However, a strategy of agricultural overproduction is necessary to mitigate the effects of subsequent inefficiencies within the global food system. In the context of 2050, this means that our system has to improve at all levels to accommodate 2 billion more people while providing better overall food security, but it starts with agricultural production.
The story is a little more complicated than just having 2 billion more seats around the dinner table. Global changes in dietary trends are also driving the need for overproduction. Scientists project that by 2050, calorie consumption per day will be 3070 per person because larger populations are adding significantly more meat, dairy and oil crops to their diets. Producing all of these extra calories in the form of meat and dairy from livestock requires an estimated 2.5 to 10 times more calories from grain (per calorie from livestock). These dietary trends have health consequences at the other end of the nutrition spectrum as well. Currently 1.4 billion adults or 20% of the world’s population is overweight. Thus, consumption of excess calories is a greater factor in mortality than undernourishment for many countries.
On top of all of this, the global food system has significant ecological impacts. Agriculture is a major factor in land use changes accounting for 75% of global deforestation. Our food system (production to consumption) contributes 19 – 29% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions with primary agricultural production contributing to about 80% of that figure. It is difficult to predict precisely how these combined ecological alterations and climate change will affect agricultural yields due to variations among locations and crop species, but the overall trend for grain yield is negative.
How much overproduction are we talking about when considering adding 2 billion more mouths to feed with a diet containing more meat and dairy products? To meet the demands of the population in 2050, agricultural production must increase by 60 – 70% relative to the levels ~2005 – 2009. Most of this increase needs to come from yields and intensity of agriculture and not simply by adding more farmland. Scientists are furiously working on creative ways to solve this problem from innovative farming practices to new crop varieties with better yields and resistance to pathogens.
There is also a growing market for biofuel crops to supply liquid transportation fuel needs. It was difficult for me to determine whether the contribution of this market has been accounted for in the estimates for future agriculture needs. This is likely due to the fact that the biofuel industry is still evolving with respect to feedstocks, production yield technology, infrastructure and economy. It is simply too early to predict which crops will have to increase yields by how much with what land use changes. It is safe to say that some form of biofuel will be part of the energy landscape of 2050, but even scientists can’t seem to predict the trajectory the industry will take along the way. It’s bad enough when numbers are daunting to scientists, but it’s even worse when we don’t have numbers at all (or the scenarios are too divergent to be meaningful or useful).
It is dangerously naïve to think that the current estimates for production increases will be sufficient in and of themselves to adequately feed, clothe and house 9 billion people in 2050. While these estimated increases in agricultural production are admirable targets, a more comprehensive solution strategy that addresses inefficiencies beyond the farm gate is required. Scientists are working on these problems, but ultimately the laws of biology and physics constrain the system. To complement these efforts, policy-makers are working on incentives to shift our agriculture and energy sectors to a more sustainable model by 2050. This is no small task because it requires balancing both global responsibility for food availability and the personal freedom of food choice.
In the daily lives of many in developed countries like the US, the 2050 problem seems invisible, except for a steady uncomfortable increase in food and energy costs. Being able to support the projected population in 2050 is the “Let’s go to the moon” project of our generation. Scientists and policy-makers are working on it, but your participation is also required. You eat, right? I imagine you would like to continue to do so. Well, you’re not the only one. The immutable fact is that our food system is a global enterprise; an insufficient food system will have adverse consequences on a global scale.
Be a part of the solution to this challenge. Make informed decisions with respect to the food you eat. Get to know your farmers and the scientists working on these issues. Join the discussion about possible solution strategies. Communicate with representatives in your government about policy decisions affecting the global food supply. The clock is ticking.
*Volumes have been written about (and continue to be written about) the issues of the earth’s growing human population. Today I have presented the highlights with respect to agriculture distilled down to blog-post format. I have not addressed the trends related to total global energy demand and how those needs will be met in the coming decades. Please see the links below as a launching point for further reading.
High Level Expert Forum 2050: Global Agriculture (PDF) from FAO**
The State of Food and Agriculture 2012 (PDF) from FAO
The FAO statistical yearbook 2013 from FAO
**If you are curious about any numbers related to agriculture, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has counted them for you- from apple production in Azerbijan to zucchini production in Zimbabwe.
***Here is the link to an interesting graphic about food choices around the globe. It shows the average weekly groceries for a number of different places. The disparities in caloric intake contributing to the statistics mentioned above are obvious.