climate change food

Feeding the world in 2050

Between now and 2050, earth’s human population is expected to rise from near 7 billion to 9 billion. At the same time, climate change, water shortages and soil erosion are expected to deplete our agricultural capacity. Meeting that food gap is one of this century’s biggest challenges, and we start with an added complication: global inequalities that leave us with a billion people underfed, and 1.5 billion overweight.

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change have been trying to square the circle, and the image above is from the latest report. It shows the scale of the challenge, with rising demand and falling supply leaving a widening hunger in the middle. But there are ways to address that. One is to lower demand, encouraging healthier eating and consuming less meat and dairy. Despite the fact that there are a billion and a half people eating too much, lowering demand is hard to do. Meat is an aspirational food for the world’s emerging middle classes, and increasing quantities of grain are being diverted to animal feed. Nevertheless, decreasing demand and changing eating patterns are perhaps the easiest and most immediate way to close the gap a little.

Somewhat trickier, but important, is to raise the amount of food we can grow on existing land. The key is to raise yields sustainably, through smarter farming methods. Examples include better crop rotation and low-till agriculture. Agro-forestry can deliver multiple crops from the same managed land, and integrated farming systems can recycle waste to other productive uses. There’s a role for both organic agriculture and biotech, say CCAFS. All of this needs major research, investment and incentives.

Finally, we can reduce wastage. When we think of food waste, chances are we think of post-consumer waste, since that’s the aspect that gets the most attention. Globally, the losses are greater in harvesting and transporting food. This is  problem in poorer countries, where there is comparatively little post-consumer waste. Much of the work here involves infrastructure, storage facilities like silos and warehouses that can keep crops from one season to the next without contamination, insect infestation or damp. Funded by the Gates Foundation, Kenya has recently set up a network of refrigeration hubs to improve market access for dairy smallholders.

Last year I wrote five reasons why the world can feed ten billion, and five reasons why we can’t. I wrote both, not because I’m indecisive, but because there’s still so much work to do to bring the theory into practice. But research like this takes us one step further towards that more positive outcome.



  1. Thanks for the link to an interesting study.

    I’m not sure you’re accurately summarising the third item if you’re trying to explain the graphic. The image appears on page 19 of the report and is accompanied by the following explanatory text:

    “Figure 10. Balancing food supply and demand. Globally, food demand will grow in the future due to population growth and changing diets (upper line) and food supply must somewhat exceed food demand if everyone’s needs are to be met and food prices are to remain affordable. Under a ‘business as usual’ approach, food production will decrease over time due to land degradation, climate change and the emergence of new pests (lower line post 2010). The large resulting gap between food supply and demand can be bridged by simultaneously applying three general approaches. (1) Avoiding losses in current productive capacity can include actions to adapt to or mitigate climate change, to reduce land and water degradation and to protect against emerging pests and disease. (2) Increasing agricultural production per unit land area can be achieved through use of improved technologies, practices and policies, more efficient
    use of existing agricultural land and targeted expansion of agricultural land and water use (where negative environmental impacts are minimal). (3) Reducing food demand can be accomplished through efforts to promote healthier and more sustainable food choices and to reduce food waste across supply chains. None of these three approaches alone are sufficient and all three require substantial
    innovation in the food system. [reference]”

    If your first point is a summary of their #3, then you’ll note that reducing waste actually falls under this point. What then appears to be missing from your summary is their point #1, which in some ways is the most obvious point to make, and which I’d translate roughly as “stop wrecking the planet”, especially in ways that reduce food production.

    1. Hmm, you’re right. I drew my points from the recommendations rather than the section immediately below the graph, so they don’t necessarily correspond very well. Thanks for the correction.

      1. No problem. I was enjoying your post and got to the end and thought – “what, they seriously didn’t say that an important part of future food security is that we need to stop soiling our own nest?”

        At least it made me go and read the report (or bits of it).

  2. And reading a little further, I note that the cheery graph posted above seems to assume we manage to achieve an emissions trajectory towards +2ºC by 2100, which is, to put it mildly, extremely unlikely. If we can keep it to 3ºC, that will be a major victory from where we currently are.

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