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Sustainably feeding the world in 2050: Are efficiency and equity the answer?

20 Aug 2019
5 min reading time

Feeding the world in 2050 will be challenging. With increasing numbers of mouths to feed, overstretched land resources and the threats to our food system posed by climate change; could efficiency and equity be the key to sustainably feeding the planet?

The challenge of future-proofing our food supplies

The global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, an increase of 2 billion people from 2019 levels, according to a June 2019 United Nations report. To meet this fast-growing demand, food production will need to increase by around 60 percent, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), which would require 593 million additional hectares of agricultural land to meet this demand — an area almost twice the size of India. The difference between the land available today and what will be needed in the future is what the WRI terms the “land gap,” and it has massive climate implications. Closing the land gap, by not taking up any additional land to feed the world in 2050, must be a part of a sustainable plan as we approach 2050.

However, the growth in population will not be evenly balanced around the world. According to the June UN report, more than half of global population growth is projected to take place in just nine countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Indonesia, Egypt, and the United States, in descending order. These large population growths could exacerbate economic pressures on the poorest residents of those nations and put further strain on their food systems. Increasing the amount of food produced is just the first step: it’s also vital to make sure that food is distributed equitably, so that those who truly need it, get it. 

To feed the world population by 2050, while minimizing hunger and poverty and not exploiting additional land resources, two watchwords are necessary: efficiency and equity.

Efficiency: When there isn’t more space to expand

Food production is a major contributor to climate change, which means expanding agricultural land to feed the world in 2050 is not a sustainable solution. The WRI states that food production today takes up 37 percent of land on Earth (excluding Antarctica) and nearly one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are a direct result of food production. Taking up more land for crops would mean sacrificing portions of important world ecosystems, such as forests, which help moderate our climate and improve air quality. 

The key to feeding more people could be finding more efficient and environmentally sustainable uses of the land already devoted to food. There are several tactics that would be effective in chipping away at the land gap:

  • Cut down on food waste. About a third of all food globally gets wasted, according to the FAO, so reducing this is a must. The World Resources Institute (WRI) reports that a 25 percent reduction in food waste would push food production 12 percent closer to the levels necessary to feed the world in 2050 and would shrink the amount of increased agricultural land needed by 27 percent, inching closer to fully closing the land gap.
  • Rethink meat. Meat production is highly resource-intensive: Beef, per gram of edible protein, requires 20 times more land and leads to 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than plant protein, according to the WRI. Farmers can more productively use existing pasturelands by improving fertilization, using higher-quality cattle feed, and rotating livestock’s grazing areas. Additionally, individuals can limit their meat consumption and choose plant-based proteins, such as beans, peas, and lentils, to further contribute to global sustainability.
  • Focus on soil and water quality to improve croplands. A report from the FAO's Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils estimates that fully one-third of the world’s soil lands are degraded by erosion, acidification, mineral depletion, or pollution. One sustainable way forward is agroforestry, which is the practice of growing trees on farms and pastures to improve soils and facilitate plant growth. Trial sites in Zambia where apple-ring acacia trees were planted showed marked increases in soil nitrogen, potassium, and organic carbon, according to University of Zambia researchers, making agroforestry a more economically accessible and environmentally friendly method than chemical fertilizers.

Equity: When more food alone isn’t enough

Just as resources are not spread evenly around the world today, the distribution of the global food supply, as it grows between now and 2050, is likely to be imbalanced as well. Therefore, efforts to increase the food supply by 2050 must be paired with policy initiatives to ensure that benefits are distributed equitably to all people, regardless of socioeconomic status.

According to an FAO report, “ensuring an adequate supply of food at the aggregate level, globally or nationally, does not guarantee that all people have enough to eat and that hunger will be eliminated.” As an example, the report pointed to the fact that hunger levels shot up during the food price crisis in 2007/2008, despite a record-high cereal grain harvest in 2008.

The FAO report concluded that delivering food equitably to the growing world population would require a focused and comprehensive approach: “In order to help these people escape from the vicious circle [of hunger and poverty] requires targeted and deliberate action in the form of comprehensive social services, including food assistance, health and sanitation, education and training,”.

The FAO notes that the vast majority of population growth by 2050 is projected to be in urban areas. However, in rural areas, the population will still grow at a faster rate than job growth from agriculture, meaning agriculture will not be able to provide jobs for everyone living in the countryside. For this reason, the FAO calls for governments to enact policies that facilitate transitions to non-agricultural rural employment. Nevertheless, governments should continue to support agriculture as well, according to the FAO report, because public investment in the sector generates high rates of return and encourages private-sector contributions. When a country’s GDP is increased specifically via agriculture, especially through growth among small farmers, the benefit is more than doubled for the poorest half of the country’s population, versus when growth originates in non-agricultural sectors, the report notes.

A pathway to feeding the growing population

Feeding the world in 2050 is possible, even without needing to convert much additional land to agricultural purposes. Governments will need to take action to ensure everyone gets equal access to food, but through actions like reducing food waste and meat consumption in your own life, you can contribute to a sustainable future for the planet and its growing population, too.

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