We are way off target if we hope to feed everyone by 2050S

A comprehensive study suggests that food production is not on track to keep up with population growth. That means food prices are going to rise in coming decades. This trend could also reverse the progress we’ve made in world food security.

Previous studies have shown that we’ll need to boost current yields by 60% to 110% to meet rising demand and ensure food security. That means global crop production will have to double by 2050 if we hope to meet the needs of the 9.6 billion people projected to populate the Earth by that point.

Not to mention the 870 million people currently living who are chronically undernourished.

The reason for such a dramatic increase, say the experts, has to do with not just the rising population, but also changes to global-scale dietary habits (namely an increase in demand for meat and dairy), and increasing biofuel consumption.

Key global crops

To reach this alarming conclusion, Deepak Ray, Jonathan Foley, and colleagues, took a look at over 2.5 million agricultural statistics collected from across the world from 1961 to 2008. The team was concerned with four key global crops in particular, namely maize, rice, wheat, and soybean — which collectively produce nearly two-thirds of global agricultural calories.

Their calculations show that the yields in these four crops are increasing 1.6%, 1.0%, 0.9%, and 1.3% per year respectively. This is considerably less than the 2.4% required to double global production in the next 35 years. At current rates, we’re looking at 67%, 42%, 38%, and 55% increases respectively by 2050.

We are way off target if we hope to feed everyone by 2050S

Global Projections: Solid lines show projections; dashed lines shows the 2.4% yield improvement required to meet demand by 2050; shading shows the 90% confidence region derived from 99 samples.

What’s more, yields are no longer improving for 24% to 39% of our most important cropland areas.

As a result, the low rates of yield increases may result in no change to the per capita harvests over the course of the next several decades.

“Thus, if we are to boost the production in these top four global crops that are now responsible for directly providing 43% of the global dietary energy and 40% of its daily protein supply from yield increases alone, we have to immediately determine where and exactly by how much yields are changing,” write the authors in the study, which now appears in PLoS.

The geography of the situation

As noted, these effects will be particularly severe for low-income countries with rapidly rising populations. Guatemala is particularly problematic example — a country with a corn-dependent population on the rise, while corn production goes into decline.

China, India and Indonesia are witnessing rice yield increases of only 0.7%, 1.0%, and 0.4% improvement per year.

We are way off target if we hope to feed everyone by 2050S

The researchers are hoping to highlighting those regions where investments must be targeted to increase yields.

”We have the potential to feed the world”

Concerned about this study and its implications, I contacted Ramez Raam, author of The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet to get his insights.

“This is a tremendously important paper from a solid team,” he told io9. “Jon Foley and others at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota have done some of the best work in understanding how to feed the world and whether or not we’re on track to.”

Like the study’s authors, Naam is concerned about our ability to meet the growing demand.

“Now, that said, we have the potential to feed the world,” he says. “We have more than enough land, sunlight, water, and nutrients. The number one problem is that many fields, particularly in poor countries, don’t produce nearly as much food as they could.”

Take a typical acre in the US, Europe, or Canada. It can produce four or five times as as much each year as a field in India or Bangladesh or sub-Saharan India. Overall, yields in developed nations are roughly twice the global average — this is called the yield gap.

“So if by 2050 we brought global yields up to current developed-nation yields, that would be sufficient to meet worldwide demand,” he explained.

I asked Naam how we could global yields up to developed-nation levels. He says there are two ways:

More development and industrialization: Developed nations have higher yields because of infrastructure and energy — fertilizer, irrigation systems, modern pesticides, tractors and combines, fuel to run them, and so on. By contrast, in the developing world, all the world is being done by hand or by animals — plowing the fields, planting the seeds, digging up the weeds, spraying whatever pesticide is available (if any), and so on. As countries get richer and get access to more capital, this becomes more doable.

Better crops: Option two is to engineer the crops themselves to have higher yields, resist pests, need less fertilizer and irrigation, and so on. In other words, genetic modification. And some of the most exciting genetic modification work going on — most of it being funded by the Gates Foundation and other non-profits — is looking at improving the photosynthesis in wheat and rice and soybeans (by porting the better version in corn), in making grains that can fertilize themselves from the nitrogen in the atmosphere (as soy and peas and other legumes can), crops that can grow in saltier and more acidic soils (which would allow farmers to expand their farmlands without chopping down forests), and crops that need less water (again allowing farmers to grow crops in more places).

These engineered crops haven’t arrived yet — they’re still in the lab. But once developed, Naam says they can be reproduced easily and spread to places where they can make up for the relative lack of energy and capital.

In addition to these two approaches, Naam says we should reduce food waste (an estimated 25% of all food gets thrown out!) and reduce the ‘meat burden.’ He’s a bit dubious about the last point, but feels that more work should be done to develop vat grown meat.

“But we are a long long ways from that being economical enough to make any significant dent,” he cautions.

Interestingly, the authors of the paper put forth nearly identical recommendations, adding that a portion of the production shortfall could also be met by expanding croplands, but at a high environmental cost to biodiversity and carbon emissions.

Read the entire study at PLoS One: “Yield Trends Are Insufficient to Double Global Crop Production by 2050”.

Image Bruce Rolf/Shutterstock.