Can the world feed 10 billion people?

Agriculture is already a significant contributor to climate change, but with the planet's expanding population even more food will need to be grown

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The UN announced that the world’s population had reached eight billion, something its Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said should make us “marvel” at the growth in lifespans and reductions in child mortality.

But Mr Guterres also struck a cautionary tone, warning that the milestone reminded us “of our shared responsibility to care for our planet”, which is all the more relevant given that population growth is set to continue for decades.

While the global population increase has slowed to below 1 per cent a year, forecasts suggest there will be 9.7 billion people on Earth in 2050 and about 10.4 billion — more than a quarter more than today — by 2100.

It raises the question of how these additional mouths are going to be fed and whether the planet can cope with the stresses created by producing ever more food.

Action needed

Prof Matin Qaim, an agricultural economist and director of the Centre for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn in Germany, says 10 billion people can be fed without harming the planet “if we do the right things”.

Among them, he says, is becoming more sustainable in food consumption and distribution, which includes cutting food waste.

“We need to reduce losses along the supply chain and we need to change our diets in the US, Europe and Australia — we need to reduce our consumption of meat and animal-sourced foods,” he says.

Indeed, research in the US has indicated that more than a third of calories from crops are fed to livestock.

Prof Qaim says “bolder policy-making and incentives” are required to achieve the transition in diets that he sees as necessary.

It is an issue also highlighted by Zoltan Rendes, a European Union Climate Pact Ambassador, a role that involves supporting action on climate change. He echoes the voices of climate change activists who say the world is “overproducing and overconsuming meat”.

“It’s OK to have a burger or a steak but not every day,” said Mr Rendes, who is partner and chief marketing officer of Dubai company, SunMoney Solar Group. “The whole production of meat is a very polluting process.”

Sustainability is key

Tying in with this, a 2019 report highlights limiting the growth in demand for food (including a shift to “more sustainable” diets and a cut in food waste) as one of five key areas of action that could make agriculture sustainable by 2050, despite the need to provide for a bigger population.

Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050, produced by the World Resources Institute with organisations including the UN and the World Bank, estimates that in 2050, 56 per cent more crop calories will be needed compared to 2010.

Over the same period, the area of land agriculture requires — if crop and pasture yields grow at rates seen until now — will increase by almost twice the size of India.

If this happens, total annual agricultural emissions would be the equivalent of 15 billion tonnes of CO2. But if global temperature rises are to be kept to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the report says that agriculture should not generate more than the equivalent of four billion tonnes of CO2 each year.

Tackling greenhouse gasses

Agriculture’s contribution to climate change is already significant, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculating that the sector as a whole generates 8.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

The total impact of food production on planetary warming is much greater, because the IPCC has worked out that the clearing of land for farming and other land-use changes linked to agriculture account for an additional 14.5 per cent of emissions. That means that close to a quarter of all carbon emissions are linked to agriculture.

The World Resources Institute warns that no “silver bullet” can solve the issue. But, aside from ensuring that demand for food does not continue to rise at a steep rate, it also says the world should focus on technologies and farming methods that cut agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, such as reducing emissions from fertilisers.

Another area of focus should be increasing the supply of fish, including by better managing stocks in seas and oceans.

Also required are the linking of agricultural yield gains with ecosystem conservation, and increases in food production without allowing agriculture to use more land, which requires yield improvements.

This last issue — the growing demand for agricultural land — will be a key challenge, says Prof Carsten Daugbjerg, of the Department of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Copenhagen.

Lack of land

In North America and Europe in particular, there may be little scope for increasing the land available for agriculture.

Elsewhere, more land can be freed up but at the cost of the release of vast quantities of greenhouse gases jeopardising biodiversity.

“There’s the whole issue of the rainforest in South America, where there’s potential to expand the agricultural area, but that would certainly cause other problems,” Prof Daugbjerg says.

At the same time, he warns that efforts to increase agricultural yields, which may involve more fertiliser or pesticide use, also risk harming the environment.

An additional complicating factor is that climate change means that agricultural yields in certain areas will decline. In some parts of the world, it may no longer be possible to produce the food that is grown there today.

To achieve “climate resilient” agricultural productivity, Prof Qaim argues that new technology, such as advanced methods of genetic engineering, is needed, despite often being controversial. Best practices in agronomy, the science of crop production and soil management, are another priority.

Much of the world’s population growth is projected to come from Africa, with UN forecasts indicating that the populations of more than half of the continent’s 54 nations will at least double by 2050.

Prof Qaim says agricultural yields can be as little as one fifth of those elsewhere and that by adopting technology used in many other parts of the world, outputs could increase “many fold”. He cautions, however, that implementing technology alone is not enough.

“It’s providing the infrastructure, having markets that work well for predominantly small-scale farmers,” he says, adding that large investments in rural development are needed.

So, as we celebrate advances in medicine making us live longer, expect many challenges on the road to a world with 10 billion people.

Updated: November 18, 2022, 6:00 PM