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How to feed an extra 2,400,000,000 people

Food production must be increased 70 percent to provide for the extra 2.4 billion people expected to come aboard planet Earth by 2050. We have the technology and the knowhow to do this without using a lot more arable land than we farm now–but only if we act in a targeted and strategic way. That’s...

Food production must be increased 70 percent to provide for the extra 2.4 billion people expected to come aboard planet Earth by 2050. We have the technology and the knowhow to do this without using a lot more arable land than we farm now–but only if we act in a targeted and strategic way.

That’s the message that came out of Rome today at the start of this week’s High-Level Expert Forum on How to Feed the World in 2050, convened by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

The combined effect of population growth, strong income growth and urbanization is expected to result in almost the doubling of world demand for food, feed and fiber, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said at the start of today’s session.


FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf opening the “How to Feed the World in 2050” with a welcome address to delegates, 12-13 October 2009, FAO Headquarters, Rome, Italy.

© FAO/Alessandra Benedetti

Opening the two-day forum, Diouf said that agriculture must become more productive if it is to feed a much larger world population while responding to the daunting environmental challenges ahead.

“Agriculture will have no choice but to be more productive.”

“Agriculture will have no choice but to be more productive,” Diouf said in remarks posted on the FAO Web site.

How to Feed the world logo.png

Increases would need to come mostly from yield growth and improved cropping intensity rather than from farming more land despite the fact that there are still ample land resources with potential for cultivation, particularly in sub-Sahara Africa and Latin America, he said.

He also noted that “while organic agriculture contributes to hunger and poverty reduction and should be promoted, it cannot by itself feed the rapidly growing population.”

World population is projected to rise to 9.1 billion in 2050 from a current 6.7 billion, requiring a 70-percent increase in farm production, says an FAO report “How to Feed the World 2050.”


According to the report, “By 2050 the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion, 34 percent higher than today. Nearly all of this population increase will occur in developing countries. Urbanization will continue at an accelerated pace, and about 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban (compared to 49 percent today). Income levels will be many multiples of what they are now.

“In order to feed this larger, more urban and richer population, food production (net of food used for biofuels) must increase by 70 percent. Annual cereal production will need to rise to about 3 billion tonnes from 2.1 billion today and annual meat production will need to rise by over 200 million tonnes to reach 470 million tonnes.”


Sprinklers irrigating crops in South Africa

NGS photo by Bobby Haas

The report argues that the required increase in food production can be achieved “if the necessary investment is undertaken and policies conducive to agricultural production are put in place. But increasing production is not sufficient to achieve food security. It must be complemented by policies to enhance access by fighting poverty, especially in rural areas, as well as effective safety net programs.”

Climate change effects

In addition to a growing scarcity of natural resources such as land, water and biodiversity “global agriculture will have to cope with the effects of climate change, notably higher temperatures, greater rainfall variability and more frequent extreme weather events such as floods and droughts,” Diouf warned today.

Climate change would reduce water availability and lead to an increase in plant and animal pests and diseases. “The combined effects of climate change could reduce potential output by up to 30 percent in Africa and up to 21 percent in Asia,” he noted.

“The challenge is not only to increase global future production but to increase it where it is mostly needed and by those who need it most. There should be a special focus on smallholder farmers, women and rural households and their access to land, water and high quality seeds…and other modern inputs.”

It is also important to bridge the technology gap between countries through knowledge transfer using North-South, South-South and triangular cooperation to achieve sustainable increases in agricultural production and productivity.

“A special challenge is posed by water as climate change will make rainfall increasingly unreliable.”

A special challenge was posed by water as climate change would make rainfall increasingly unreliable, Diouf said. Investment in improved water control and water management should be considered a priority.

Competition from biofuel

Also being discussed at this week’s forum is how food production would also face increasing competition from the biofuel market “which has the potential to change the fundamentals of agricultural market systems,” according to Diouf.

Increased use of food crops for biofuel production could have serious implications for food security, according to the FAO report on how to feed the world. “A recent study estimates that continued rapid expansion of biofuel production up to 2050 would lead to the number of undernourished pre-school children in Africa and South Asia being 3 and 1.7 million higher than would have been otherwise the case. Therefore, policies promoting the use of foodbased biofuels need to be reconsidered with the aim of reducing the competition between food and fuel for scarce resources.”


Pennsylvania farm photo by David Braun

At this week’s Forum, about 300 experts from around the world will review and debate the investment needs, technologies and policy measures needed to secure the world’s food supplies by 2050. “$44 billion a year of official development assistance will need to be invested in agriculture in developing countries–against the $7.9 billion that is being spent now,” the FAO says. “Higher investments, including from national budgets, foreign direct investment and private sector resources, should be made for better access to modern inputs, more irrigation systems, machinery, storage, more roads and better rural infrastructures, as well as more skilled and better trained farmers.”

Through its conclusions and recommendations the Forum will contribute to the debate and outcome of the World Summit on Food Security scheduled at FAO headquarters on November 16-18, to be attended by Heads of State and Government from FAO’s 192 Member Nations.

“It is hoped the Summit will agree then on the complete and rapid eradication of hunger so that every human being on Earth can enjoy the most fundamental of all human rights–the “right to food” and thus to decent life,” the FAO said.


Delegates at the FAO High-Level Expert Forum on “How to Feed the World in 2050”, in Rome, today.

©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

The problems to be resolved

On its Web site How to Feed the World 2050, trhe FAO says these are the problems that must be resolved:

  • Will we be able to produce enough food at affordable prices or will rising food prices drive more of the world’s population into poverty and hunger?
  • How much spare capacity in terms of land and water do we have to feed the world in 2050?
  • What are the new technologies that can help us use scarce resources more efficiently, increase and stabilize crop and livestock yields?
  • Are we investing enough in research and development for breakthroughs to be available in time?
  • Will new technologies be available to the people who will need them most – the poor?
  • How much do we need to invest in order to help agriculture adapt to climate change, and how much can agriculture contribute to mitigating extreme weather events?


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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn