The Latest Sustainability Trend: How Will We Feed 10 billion People in 2050?

Co-Authored by Transformation, LLC Director of Projects, Victoria Brodsky

The Population Crisis at Hand

The growth of the world’s human population has been a topic of discussion for centuries. As our developments in science and technology allow for increased longevity, our hope has always been that the natural resource output from the earth will match the demand of the fast growing human population.

It is estimated that by 2050, nearly 10 billion people will inhabit planet earth. It took nearly 200,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion, but only 200 more years to reach 7 billion people (1). We have created a “Catch 22” situation in which innovations in science and technology have allowed the human population to flourish, yet to house, feed, and support this population sustainably requires more aggressive and smarter solutions.

The United Nations estimates that the population is growing by roughly 80 million people per year, and much of this growth is expected from regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and the U.S. (2). However, the combination of population growth and the increasing numbers and consumption of food and goods in the middle class are causing an exponential increase in demand for food and housing.

Feeding the Growing Middle Class

Global economic growth of over 2.9% annually is allowing citizens of developing countries to escape poverty (less than $1.25 per day) faster than ever (3). This, of course, should be considered a great achievement for the global society, but the increase of global middle class citizens leads to increase of consumption and higher demand for more expensive food like meat products, dairy, and vegetable oils. To feed 10 billion people in 2050, global cereals production (wheat, barley, hay) for both human and livestock consumption would have to increase to 3 billion tons, nearly a 1 billion ton increase from today’s production of 2.1 billion tons.

Since the green revolution of the 20th century, output per acre, and thus available calories per capita has increased in an effort to feed a growing population, reducing starvation. Genetically modified seeds, and technological advances in agriculture, production, and distribution have allowed us to produce nearly 4,000 calories per person, per day, around the world today (4). So why are we worried?

What Will it Take to Feed 10 Billion People?

What will it take to feed 10 billion? Research by the Rockefeller Foundation and World Economic Forum estimates that despite our overproduction of food today, we will need to increase food production by over 60% (5). Our current use of the world’s arable land must be doubled, so sustainable intensification of agriculture is crucial in meeting goals of feeding a population of over 10 million people (4).

The areas of greatest concern are developing nations whose infrastructure and governments currently face the challenge of feeding their population, and thus inevitably have issues scaling alongside their population growth. These include Sub-Saharan African countries, South America, India, China, and countries in Southeast Asia, and most of their food comes from small family farms (2). In order to improve the efficiency and output of the land in these areas, there must be a global initiative to implement smart solutions.

The more data and knowledge farmers, producers, and distributors have at every step of the process, the more they are empowered to run their operations more efficiently, reducing waste, optimizing inputs and outputs, and providing better, healthier, safer food products to consumers. On the other hand, food sensing technologies and mobile apps that teach consumers about what’s in their food allows them to make more informed purchasing decisions when it comes to food, reducing household waste and improving dietary habits.

However, for most farmers, utilizing all of the latest agriculture technologies is not always easily available or economical. That has to change.

(1) Roser, M., & Ortiz-Ospina, E. (n.d.). World Population Growth. Retrieved from https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth 

(2) World population projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050 UN DESA Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2017.html

(3) Global Agriculture Towards 2050 [PDF]. (2009, October 12). Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations.

(4) Deutsche Welle. (n.d.). Sustainable food for everyone? The challenge of our century | DW | 11.07.2017. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/environment-world-population-day-agriculture-sustainability-food-waste-food-security-overpopulation/a-39628974 6

(5) Steiner, R. (2018, October 16). 4 Ways to Build a Food System for the Future. Retrieved from https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/blog/4-ways-build-food-system-future/

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