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.