How much food do we need to feed the world?

If we want to feed the world in 2050 we need to focus on the right data and issues. The United Nations predicts humankind will need to increase agricultural production by 60% to feed a population of over 9 billion people by the year 2050. This oft quoted statistic is most likely misinterpreted by most consumers of information. Back in 2015, Doug Boucher of the Union of Concerned Scientists made a rock solid case of how this statistic has been distorted by mainstream media. Do we really need 60% more food?

60% increase in what?

At first glance common sense might lead us to believe we need 60% more calories than we produce today. Another possible explanation is we need 60% more food by weight, say, in pounds or kilograms. Actually, it’s neither. The United Nations uses economic value as a measure to predict agriculture production that will have to be increased by 2050.

Is economic value the best measure?

The economic value approach has drawbacks. Food preferences can change over time. For example, people might demand healthier food or switch from meat to a vegetarian diet.

Economic value is determined in U.S. dollars and does not take into account currency fluctuations. If the value of the U.S. dollar were to decline or rise over time does that mean we’ll suddenly need more or less food?

Another twist is the United Nations report defines agriculture not only as edible crops and livestock but also, for example, cotton and rubber both of which we would not ordinarily think of as food. And food from fisheries is excluded entirely from the projection.

There may not be a better approach

Had the United Nations report used calories as a benchmark to determine how much food we need, for example, tea vs. grains, tea would not be counted towards our food “needs” as it contributes virtually no calories to diet. If a weight approach were used then vegetables such as tomatoes would be over-represented due to its high water content and relatively low caloric value. The economic value approach appears to be at least somewhat objective.

Getting to the right questions and data

While undoubtedly food production will have to be increased it leaves us with a lot of open questions as to how much food our species will actually need to produce by 2050. 60% more food by 2050 makes for a great headline but planning for the future of our planet requires better information. Let’s think about the bigger problems that will impact our ability to feed the world.

  • Without farmers we can’t grow what we need. The average age of a farmer has been steadily rising in developed countries. In the United States it’s 58 as of the last Agriculture Census. In Japan it’s 67. We not only need to support our farmers, but encourage the next generation to consider it as a career. Check out our latest post here.

  • It can take up to several hundred years to form 1 cm of soil. We need to implement better ways to prevent soil erosion, for example, no-till farming.

  • We waste A LOT of food. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, in the United States 31% of food waste comes from retailers and consumers. Conservation is key.

For further reading:

Alexandratos, N. and J. Bruinsma. 2012. World agriculture towards 2030/2050: the 2012 revision. ESA Working paper No. 12-03. Rome, FAO.

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