If you’ve been attending agricultural and food conferences over the last decade you’ve likely heard countless references to “feed the 9 billion” or to double production by 2050 to meet the appetite of a growing global population.
Is it time we revisited this oft-cited food prediction? Penn State University’s Mitch Hunter thinks so.
Hunter and his colleagues have taken a critical look at the studies used to calculate the 2050 demand estimate. Based on updated analysis they believe the world will need only 25 to 70 percent more crop output in 2050 than was produced in 2014. If they are correct, that means agriculture should be able to meet the needs of the growing population if it continues to expand at roughly historical rates.
Last month, Hunter told farmers attending the FarmSmart conference in Guelph how he and his colleagues developed the revised prediction after updating the two most widely cited projections of food demand, one by U.S. scholars and the other from the United Nations, using the most recent available data.
In this interview with RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin, Hunter explains that a lot has changed since 2005 – the baseline for the initial projections. Global cereal production has already increased by 25 percent “so we’ve already taken a bite out of that projection,” he says.
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“When you look at how fast the economy is growing and how fast the population is growing, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” notes Hunter. There are “some indications that we may not be increasing demand as rapidly as we once thought.”
Hunter and his colleagues have also taken a critical look at the concepts of food ‘demand’ versus food ‘need.’ He argues that not everybody needs a steak. Much of the world’s population can eat lower on the food chain – beans and rice will do.
But that doesn’t mean farmers can ease off the throttle when it comes to pushing for higher yields. Hunter is concerned that production increases could be more difficult to sustain in the years ahead, “It may become a case of running to stand still,” he adds.
Increasing production may become more challenging, especially in the U.S. and Canada where we already produce at the top range of the yield potential, says Hunter. “Getting more bushels off our land is just going to get harder and harder. On top of that we’re facing new challenges with variable weather, changes in perception patterns and higher temperatures.
“It’s not going to be trivial to keep this production increase going, especially when we want to do it in a way where we are protecting the water, making sure we are keeping carbon in our soil and really benefitting the environment at the same time.”