To feed nine billion people in 2050, we need to double food production and cut down environmental damage from farming at the same time. It sounds like a hopeless task, but scientists say it’s possible—if we make some major changes in the way we farm and eat.
An international team of twenty-one researchers concluded that we can produce enough food for the future if we use resources more efficiently, raise yields of underperforming farmland, waste less food, devote less land to livestock farming and biofuels, and stop cutting down forests for agriculture.
Led by Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota, the team combined “two conversations that unfortunately don’t go together often enough, which is how do we feed nine billion, and then how do we do it sustainably,” says Geoffrey Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program in Washington, D.C. “You’re not going to get where you want to go unless you tackle them both together and understand how they’re intertwined.”
Today’s population of seven billion will grow by an estimated two billion over the next forty years. Meanwhile, diets are shifting across the globe, as people eat more and more meat on average. As a result, food demand is expected to at least double by mid-century.
Since a billion people are already undernourished, we would seem ill-equipped to meet the food needs of the future. But Foley contends that our environment is up to the task, as long as we play our cards right. He and his colleagues analyzed spatial data from several recent studies, publishing their results recently in Nature.
The team identified areas across the globe—mainly in Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe—where food production is currently much lower than it could be, according to physical and biological conditions. They calculated how much food this land could add to the global supply if it were farmed to its full potential.
They also determined the food production we would gain by using resources more efficiently. Irrigation, for instance, is practiced wastefully in many parts of the world. Similarly, fertilizers are often used improperly—not only squandering nutrients but also compromising the environment through pollution.
Foley’s team proposed changes in demand as well as production. They calculated the amount of food we would gain by consuming less meat. They factored in the quantity we would add by limiting crops grown for biofuel and by reducing the amount of food that gets thrown away. Adding together all of these sources of potential gain, Foley and his colleagues found that we could raise global food production by 100 to 180 percent.
The team also determined that unless we scale back harmful impacts on the environment, food security will be short-lived. Compared to all other human activities, agriculture consumes the most water, causes the most water pollution, and emits the most greenhouse gases. It furthermore occupies by far the most land area, covering about 38 percent of the earth’s ice-free land. One of the team’s key conclusions is that agriculture can—and, in fact, must—feed our growing population without taking over any new land.
Clearing additional land for agriculture involves great loss for little gain, according to the researchers. Most of the remaining farmable land consists of tropical forests and other sensitive ecosystems with high biodiversity.
By halting deforestation and modifying both production and demand, we can safeguard the environment to produce enough food in 2050 and beyond, according to Foley’s team. The study is encouraging in that it shows “there are ways forward that are not wildly technologically optimistic or require some amazing breakthrough,” says Dabelko.
While Foley and his colleagues have identified what needs to be done, pulling it off is another matter. Each proposed strategy poses staggering social, political, and economic challenges. Convincing people around the world not to eat meat, for instance—or reducing biofuel production in the face of an energy crisis—is far easier said than done.
“What has to happen is that food needs to rise further up the political agenda,” says ecologist Charles Godfray of the University of Oxford. No matter what, it’s clear that global food security will be no piece of cake.